ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We have this sad news to report. Sportswriter Frank Deford has died. His weekly Wednesday commentary was a Morning Edition staple for over 35 years. And before he joined NPR in 1980, he already was one of the most esteemed and decorated writers in the business. Even when it was the most run-of-the-mill story, Frank Deford was good for at least one take that you'd never heard before. Deford retired from doing commentaries earlier this month, and that was when NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman first shared this appreciation of one of the rare voices in sports.
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Limited 3 White Jersey Henry Derrick Tide College Crimson FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: I am the very model of a baseball star. I hit them hard and hit them far. No, not a swimmer, nor a sprinter, nor a skier or point guard - me, for I'm lean and mean and fit as a fiddle, ready to show the world my spittle, ready to show my spittle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM THE VERY MODEL OF A MODERN MAJOR-GENERAL")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I am the very model of a lot of modern major-general.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) In short, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral, he is the very model of a modern major-general.
Limited 3 White Jersey Henry Derrick Tide College Crimson KETZEL LEVINE: When Frank came on being outrageous, it was very much what we wanted in our commentators.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Ketzel Levine was the Morning Edition sports producer who recruited Frank in 1979, when he was one of the top writers for Sports Illustrated.
LEVINE: He just kind of took it in a whole different direction that no one had really taken it before.
GOLDMAN: Frank churned out 1,656 commentaries. He was given a lot of freedom with the expectation he'd be original every Wednesday, a notoriously slow sports day.
DEFORD: If I come on three days after the Super Bowl and say pretty much what everybody else has said, what's the point? That was the tricky thing was coming up with a new angle.
GOLDMAN: Mostly he did. He imagined Shakespeare covering the Super Bowl. He compared Babe Ruth to Winnie the Pooh. And almost always, he had a fresh, pointed take on the issue of the moment.
DEFORD: So I believe that the reason gay male athletes stay in the closet has far more to do with the public than with the locker room.
It troubles her, as she admits, that she herself lied about that, filling out boilerplate NCAA forms that affirmed that there was no cheating. But everybody does it, just tell the NCAA what it wants and sell more tickets.
GOLDMAN: Strong opinions beget strong reactions, and Frank got his share. After Frank suggested maybe hockey should stay in Canada, former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards read from a particularly scorching letter.
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BOB EDWARDS: If Mr. Ford were to step off a plane in Detroit, Hockeytown, under anything but an assumed name, he probably wouldn't live to find his luggage.
GOLDMAN: Yikes. Frank says it's never been his goal to alienate listeners. Rather, he wanted to show a non-sports audience that sports were closer to them than they thought.
DEFORD: This is part of your life. And it's the second tier. The first here is eating, drinking and procreation. The second tier is religion, the spirit, music, art and the physical - sports. It deserves to have as much attention paid to it seriously.
GOLDMAN: Many did.
DEFORD: And the number of letters that I have gotten through the years saying, you know, I never really cared for sports, but I like listening to you because you bring something new to it. I'm sort of proud of that. I am proud of that.
GOLDMAN: In 2013, he received what he calls his highest honor, the first ever National Humanities Medal for a sportswriter. Right before former President Obama gave him the award, Frank was announced this way.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Frank Deferd (ph).
GOLDMAN: Nothing's ever perfect, chuckles Frank Deford. But for so many listeners and readers, his career came pretty close.
SIEGEL: That was NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman with an appreciation of sportswriter and NPR commentator Frank Deford, who died yesterday at age 78.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.