Frank Deford, a legendary sportswriter with Sports Illustrated from 1962 to 1989 and again from 1998 to the present, as well as an NPR sports commentator for the past 32 years, died on May 28. He was 78.
Frank had a way of profiling sports legends with deceptively simple language and colorful insights that became the gold standard for sports magazine feature writing. When I worked for the sports section of The New York Times between 1980 and ’85, Frank’s profiles in SI would force me to stop what I was doing and sit down slowly in the newsroom while reading them. Frank wrote with an engaging everyman style that made you feel as if you were hitchhiking and had just been picked up by a truck driver who wanted to tell you a story. Frank’s style never forced you to reach for a dictionary nor did he dumb down what he wanted to say. The story came first, then his prose.
So imagine my joy last May when I had an opportunity to interview Frank for my “Playlist” column in the Wall Street Journal. On the phone, Frank told me about why Someone to Watch Over Me had personal meaning. I then wrote the story Frank told me in his voice. During our conversation, Frank was a joy—funny, easy going and highly complimentary. When we were finished 30 minutes later, I came to realize that at his core, Frank was a gentleman and a humorist in the Mark Twain tradition.
Frank Deford on Gershwin’s
‘Someone to Watch Over Me’
The sportswriter ends up with
the right piano-bar request
Late in the summer of 1964, I was down at the Delaware shore with a bunch of guys who had rented a beach house. One night, we threw a party, and I spotted a girl who knocked me out. She looked like a fashion model. Lightning struck.
Over the next couple of days we spent a lot of time together. Carol was indeed a top runway model, and I was head over heels for her. I sensed maybe she was actually buying my act, too.
Back in New York, I asked Carol out to dinner. Afterward we went to a snazzy piano bar nearby. I was more smitten than ever. She was smart and funny.
We sat around the piano, and at some point the piano player asked me what I wanted to hear. The first song I thought of was Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business,” but I knew it wasn’t appropriate for that place.
Instead I asked for “Ace in the Hole,” a sassy Cole Porter show tune urging women to have a guy on the side, since most men invariably disappoint. Feeling smug, I looked over at Carol. She didn’t know the song and wasn’t amused. The whole thing was an awkward mess.
Despite my offbeat taste in show tunes, romance blossomed, and Carol and I were engaged. At which point I said to her, “I was in love with you from the moment I saw you.” She said, “I thought I was too, until you asked the piano player for ‘Ace in the Hole’—whatever that was.”
“What would you’ve wanted to hear?” I asked. Carol said she was hoping for something sweet and tender from me, ideally George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”—you know, “There’s a somebody I’m longin’ to see / I hope that he / turns out to be / Someone to watch over me.”
Carol and I married a year after meeting, and we’ll be together 51 years this August. Her favorite version of the song is by Ella Fitzgerald.
Now, every time we’re out and there’s live music, I play it safe and request “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Carol still loves my sense of humor—just not at piano bars. (c) Marc Myers
Thanks for being an inspiration Frank. I’m glad we had a chance to chat.