Hot Stove #43 – Frank Deford – Sportswriter, Father and Joe Posnanski’s Mentor

As a teenager, I devoured newspaper articles about sports and even read some books. But I was probably in my 20’s before I realized that sportswriting could also be literature, especially in the realm of storytelling. Frank Deford was a major part of that discovery.

Frank Deford – Sportswriter: Legendary sportswriter Frank Deford died last Sunday at the age of 78. The tributes from other sportswriters have been effusive, and deservedly so. From the 1960’s into the 1980’s, I was a loyal reader of Sports Illustrated and fondly remember two of its writers, Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins. Deford has been on my radar in recent years with his weekly commentaries on NPR. They were always insightful, and his crusty delivery made me grin as I listened. This year, he reduced his NPR work to once a month, and I listened to his final bow on May 3 (“Deford Says Thanks For a Good Game, Drops Mic”). As for Deford’s skills at his craft and his influence on the sportswriting profession, I recommend this collection of accolades from Sports Illustrated writers, old and new (click here).


Image result for frank deford purple handkerchief

[Dan Jenkins Trivia: Deford’s fellow writer from the glory days at Sports Illustrated is now 87. Jenkins has attended the Masters Golf Tournament every year since 1951 (67 straight). I follow him on Twitter during the Masters, and the humor I loved so much in his book SemiTough is still evident.] Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd)
5/29/17, 1:30 PM

Sad to see that my old colleague Frank Deford took his leave. He was one of the greats in our lodge.

And this from Deford’s “Lite” years: (0:30).

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Frank Deford – Father: My law partner Irv Blond had a special bond with Frank Deford. Deford was national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation from 1982 to 1999. Irv was a national vice chair for many of those years and served on the national board for 20 years. Irv remembers Deford as a man of regal bearing who was a sincere and effective leader of the Foundation. He also remembers Deford’s favorite color – purple. Deford almost always wore a purple tie or shirt or had a purple handkerchief in his breast pocket. He was well known in the sports world for his signature in purple ink. He was Prince before “Purple Rain.” In 1985, just after the Royals won the World Series, the local cystic fibrosis chapter held a fund raising dinner with Ewing Kauffman as the honoree. Irv asked Deford to be the keynote speaker for the evening. And he came, for a very memorable evening.

Image result for frank deford cystic fibrosis

In 1983, Deford wrote a book about his daughter who died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 8 (Alex: The Life of a Child). Deford explained why he told her story:

“I hoped that by writing about this one extraordinary little person, I would give a face to her disease – cystic fibrosis – which was then struggling to achieve the recognition that it needed to secure research funds…As a father who is a writer, I would’ve felt simply irresponsible had I not written the story about what was the most important thing that had happened in my life – never mind how tragic that was – especially since writing that story might help others.”


And it has done just that. There was a TV movie about Alex that raised awareness. The inspirational story of Alex and the work of Frank Deford for the Foundation have been instrumental in the progress of the research on the disease. In 1989, the CF gene was identified, leading to the development of specialized drugs to reduce the chronic symptoms suffered by CF patients. Because of the work of the Foundation and others, there is an ongoing pipeline of drugs and therapies that are improving the lives of many of those with CF.

Frank Deford – Mentor to Joe Posnanski: My reading of Joe Posnanski this week began with two posts on successive days. On May 28, Joe wrote about his daughter and the year that had passed since she and Joe had seen Hamilton on Broadway. On May 29, he wrote about Frank Deford, concluding that Deford “was the greatest sportswriter that ever was.” Joe did not connect the two posts to each other, but I think Frank Deford’s mentorship to Joe is evident in both.

Let’s start with the sportswriting. In his Deford piece, Joe tells of when he was 20 years old and luckily working a part-time sportswriting gig for the Charlotte Observer. He did not think he would make a living at sportswriting and assumed he would soon be told to find another line of work. He bought a book of Frank Deford essays that had originally been published in Sports Illustrated. While he was reading “The Boxer and the Blonde” about fighter Billy Conn, he came across “the paragraph” and read it again and again and again. “And with that one paragraph, I suddenly knew what I wanted to do, saw the mountain peak that I would climb toward for the rest of my life. I just want to write LIKE THAT, even once.” Of course, Joe has done it a lot more than once and was named National Sportswriter of the Year in 2012 (will take a while to catch up with Deford who won the award six times).

In Hot Stove #20 (6/3/16), I wrote of Joe’s wonderful post about taking his daughter Elizabeth to Hamilton. The post went viral and received sobbing appreciation from Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. What we did not know then was that Elizabeth suffers from Crohn’s Disease. Joe wrote a piece in December and described this immune system disease that leads to, among other things, chronic stomach pains, exhaustion, depression and obstruction of hunger. As Elizabeth says, “My immune system is stupid.” The night before Joe and Elizabeth saw Hamilton, she had a Crohn’s attack. They hugged and cried (Joe, “This disease…it is a bastard”), but thankfully the wave passed and they had their magical night at Hamilton.

This past Sunday, about a year since their Hamilton adventure, Joe again wrote of Elizabeth (but in a change from the December post, he refers to her as Eliza, as she likes because that is the variation of the name used for Alexander Hamilton’s wife in the show). Eliza is approaching 16 and back to her daily life after the thrill of Hamilton. Joe says that Crohn’s emerges whenever the stress level gets too high, “and let’s be honest: When is a high school freshman NOT stressed?” The post is mostly about how Eliza is becoming more grown up, but Joe will always hold the memory of his daughter “in the room where it happened” on Broadway in 2016. Joe finishes with a line straight from Bogart: “We’ll always have Hamilton.”. [Below, Philippa Soo as Eliza and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton]

Philippa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'Hamilton' (photo by Joan Marcus)

What next? Taking a page from Frank Deford, Joe’s posts about his daughter have raised awareness of Crohn’s Disease and the need for funding for research. This coming weekend, Joe and Eliza are walking for Eliza’s team in Charlotte to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.


Thank you Frank, Joe and Eliza.

For those with time to dig deeper, some further reading and listening:


Deford’s last NPR commentary: (3:43).

A good example of Deford the curmudgeon is this commentary on Royals fans stuffing the 2015 All-Star ballot box (3:32).

Posnanski’s Post on Eliza.

Posnanski’s Post on Deford.

Charlie Pierce article on the Alex Deford root beer story.