On Frank Deford and Sportswriting

Frank Deford, a legend of sportswriting at Sports Illustrated for over half a century, was awarded the Red Smith Award for outstanding contributions to sports journalism last Friday. In his acceptance speech, he touches on the direction of sportswriting. One sentence in particularly speaks directly to what we at FanGraphs (and much of the “new sports media”) write.

I don’t want to see sportswriting be overwhelmed by statistics. I want to read about the heart and blood of athletes and their stories, which has made sportswriting so special.

Deford is absolutely right. Sportswriting needs the feature stories that allow us to see the stories of these athletes. We need Molly Knight on Matt Kemp. We need Chris Ballard on Tim Duncan. We need Jimmy Breslin on Joe Namath.

Seriously, if you haven’t read that Breslin story, drop everything and read it now.

The best feature writers make us feel like we’re in the room with our favorite athletes; like we can somehow identify with them as they perform absurd, superhuman acts on the field of play. It adds an immeasurable and necessary amount to our sports experience.

But I also think there are immeasurable stories to be told about the game itself. How it is won or lost, over the course of a season or a game or an inning or even one single play. I want — and surely Deford does as well — good, quality writing about both the players and the game they play for us.

I care about the guy putting up MVP numbers for his team, but I also care about what it means for his team and how it helps them win. I’m interested in the man who hits the walk-off home run, but I also want to see how and why it happened. Statistics — sport’s silent historians — are our vessel to that end.

Deford is right in another fashion: sportswriting, even when it comes to dissecting the game itself, cannot be listing numbers off a page. There is always more to it — some nuance, some insight that brings us above simply what happened and starts answering questions. Why? How? Answering these questions can move us too.

So yes, Mr. Deford, let’s not overwhelm the word of sportswriting with statistics. Let’s just allow them to do their part.

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It is exceedingly difficult for even the most statistically-minded of sports fans (not exclusively baseball fans) to read statistical analysis of sporting events devoid of a compelling narrative. Without this, the stats can tell a story, albeit a sterile one deprived of humanity that created the statistics themselves. Similarly, sportswriting without a solid grip on reality can elucidate ephemera but serves as little more than fable, thus depriving people knowledge seekers of the education they seek. People come to sites like Fangraphs in search of both knowledge and (hopefully) entertainment, and great writers like Breslin, Deford, and Arthur Daley before them generally managed to do both, even if the method of delivery seems unrigorous to certain contemporary readers. I think we’re in good stead going forward, and I hope that more people like Jack manage to strike that balance between factual analysis and storytelling.