Weekend arts and culture: A life in sports letters

A sportswriter with a gargantuan influence on his profession was momentously honored this week, but the chances are you haven’t heard a thing about it.

But you probably have heard about a sportswriter with a gargantuan ego and penchant for self-aggrandizement who is returning to a former employer he has been publicly trashing for years.

While Frank Deford certainly had enough differences with Sports Illustrated that led to his bitter departure (chronicled in Michael MacCambridge’s book about the magazine), he flourished even more famously as an independent author, venturing beyond sports.

DefordOverTimeOn Wednesday, Deford was given the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, and it’s hard to argue against him being an early recipient. PEN created the category in 2011, and Deford now joins another legendary SI alum, Dan Jenkins, and Roger Angell, whose graceful baseball prose have long graced the pages of The New Yorker.

That such a highly respected literary outlet like PEN is giving this nod to sportswriting — often derided as a low-grade product of newspaper “toy departments” — is a healthy sign. The literary sportswriting form, in fact, goes back far beyond the rise of Deford and SI, although the magazine’s popular breakthrough in the 1960s is a critical development.

I regret that my familarity with Deford’s work has been mostly from his Sports Illustrated pieces and not the many books he has published. A younger generation knows him from his weekly commetaries on NPR, which can be curmudgeonly, quirky and just a bit maddening all at once.

Deford is a stylish — in word and fashion — descendant of some acclaimed sportswriters whose work I’ve been devouring in recent weeks, mainly through brilliantly curated story collections. Sitting at night on my back porch, savoring the work of W.C. Heinz, John Lardner and John Schulian is like being taken back to a time before I was born, right before the age of television, when approaching a subject through an honest, human sensibility and an artist’s touch with words were the backbone of the craft.

In his most recent collection, “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” Schulian includes a 1994 story from Philadelphia Magazine entitiled “The Wild, Wild Past,” about the world of the Class C Longhorn League in the 1950s and that featured a young pitcher named Tom Brookshier:

“This was baseball when it had a soul, when it was played for a few bucks and a lot of laughs by men who had survived World War II and the Depression. There were only 16 teams in the major leagues then, but the minors had upwards of 300, employing journeymen and dreamers who could tolerate dim lights and lumpy fields and the lonesome wail of a freight train on the other side of thelong-ballgods outfield wall. It was as though the players in America’s bush league outposts had made their own pact with the devil: They would trade the all-night bus rides they were always taking for a chance to draw a paycheck that said they were pros.”

If I am a future PEN judge, that paragraph alone ought to be enough for Schulian to follow Deford. Like Brookshier, more famous as a Philadelphia Eagle and an NFL television commentator, Schulian eventually struck out for the world of the tube, co-creating “Xena the Warrior Princess” and becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. In some of his other writings he tends to be a bit sentimental about athletes and coaches of another time, and he understandably frowns upon the cynicism of the present-day sports environment.

But even in a culture that trafficks in controversy — much of it ginned-up for ratings and clicks — over steroids, budget-busting contracts and the sham of “amateur” collegiate sports, the legacy of the literary sportswriters is being honored in new ways, with new forms of telling time-honored stories.

As I’ve written here before, the emergence of magazine-style sportswriting on the Web is more than just an attempt by newish sites like ESPN’s Grantland, USA Today’s Sports on Earth and SB Nation’s exquisite Longform to cultivate a more highbrow audience to attract advertisers — although there’s nothing wrong with that.

Their initial success has shown that there’s an unquenchable hunger for great storytelling, with sports as a backdrop, about dimensions of the human condition that can be told best with a contemporary perspective. These stories are told in blunter fashion, mainly from writers marinated in popular culture and the immediacies of the Web. Yet they are getting a run for their money from many more competitors for your attention, including the new gods of the numbers game.

We do live in a more jaded age, with 24/7 media hellbent on pandering to the snark-infested waters of “multi-platform” noise. With Jason Whitlock and Keith Olbermann embarking on their second tours of duty with ESPN, it’s easy to grouse about where all the oxygen went.

Then I came across a masterful recent piece in SB Nation’s Longform (edited by Glenn Stout, who’s been behind The Best American Sportswriting collections for more than 20 years), about the recent suicide of veteran NASCAR driver Dick Trickle. I was as breathtaken as I have been reading classic bylines of the genre.

Jeremy Markovich’s piece is that good, that indelible. This is a writer I’ve not heard of tackling a subject in a sport — stock car racing — that has never interested me much. But this work reflects the high standards that Stout has set as he connects the traditions of past masters and nourishes newer generations to succeed them. You can add Warren St. John, with his forthcoming GQ piece about Nick Saban, to a growing list that I ought to unpack in a future post.

Earlier this week Stout Tweeted out a link about Politico going longform, and not just for a grab at some extra traffic and revenue. As Hamish McKenzie concludes at Pando Daily:

Even as Twitter satiates our need to snack, there are plenty of new arrivals lining up to serve the feast.

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