Coming Home

Sportswriter Frank Deford recalls what it was like growing up in Baltimore.

May 02, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Frank Deford is outraged. This time, though, he's exercised not over the churlish behavior of some tennis prodigy or yet another act of self-destruction by baseball owners. As he turns onto Gittings Avenue in north Baltimore, Deford spots where Bauer's, the venerable florist, once stood - and what blossoms in its place.

"Oh, my God, I can't believe it. This is awful," cries the legendary Sports Illustrated writer. "Oh, I can't believe it."

Where the hump of a greenhouse stood for 100 years, there is now a collection of faux-Tudor style houses, each as unimaginative as the next. Worse yet, as a large sign reveals, a name has been bestowed on the development." `Pinehurst Garth!' " Deford continues in his lather. "What's a `Garth' anyway? It's a wonder they didn't call it `Mews.' "

Why would a much-acclaimed writer, who lives in New England after all, care about the evolution of this obscure corner of the world? Because, once it was his corner of the world, the place where he evolved. Just ahead and around the corner on Mossway, a road only a block long, is the childhood home of Benjamin Franklin Deford III.

Deford, whose elegant writing helped establish Sports Illustrated's reputation as a literary magazine, has lived in his Connecticut house for 26 years. (He and his wife moved in, he likes to say, the day that Richard Nixon moved out - of the White House.) Yet, Deford says, "If you woke me up in the middle of the night, I'd still say Baltimore was home."

Perhaps that's what comes of happy childhoods, which Deford, now 62, is the first to acknowledge he enjoyed during the 1940s and 1950s. For those who believe a miserable youth is de rigueur for truly gifted artists, Deford's standing on the top tier of American magazine writers for the last 35 years, must come as a literary mystery.

"It was Valhalla," Deford said last week during an infrequent visit to his hometown. "I had a mother and father who loved me, great brothers and an extended family. It was absolutely idyllic. It's hard for me to imagine better."

Deford was here for a couple of charitable speaking engagements, one at his alma mater, the Gilman School. He agreed afterward to drive his daffodil-colored Saab convertible to his boyhood home on Mossway while sharing whatever reminiscences wafted over him during the journey.

Deford doesn't look much like a sportswriter this particular morning, not if you imagine sportswriters in the Jimmy Cannon mold, rumpled, vaguely disreputable-looking men with fat cigars in their kissers. Deford is in a dark, pin-striped suit, buttoned at midriff, with an orchid tie and matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. He is a tall, handsome man with a crooked smile and perhaps not enough weight to fill out his height.

The only giveaways that this is not a CEO are the soft, slipper-like black loafers on his feet and slick, ash-colored hair a bit too long for the boardroom. There's also that pencil-thin mustache, now gone thoroughly gray, with its suggestion of devilment.

The tour starts here

For the Deford tour, Gilman is a fine starting point because it figured so prominently in his youth. His father, known as Benjie, grew up in opulence until his elders ran the family's leather business into the ground. So Benjie made a modest living as secretary of a porcelain and enamel business. He and his wife, Louise, nevertheless wanted their three boys well-educated and scrimped to make it happen. "I was the poorest kid in the class, which is a pretty good place to be," Deford says. "You have all the advantages, yet you don't feel privileged. I think that's why I strived so hard."

On this morning, Deford spoke in Alumni Auditorium, in a building that was completed his senior year, in 1956-1957, just in time for him to make an appearance in a school production of a play called "Noah." He was Ham, he says, "the mean, obstreperous son."

Not far from the auditorium is the gymnasium where Deford starred in basketball. During his senior year - which he regards as the summit of his athletic career - he was named to the All-Scholastic second team as a forward. Second team because that was the first year in Baltimore that high school athletics - and all-star selections - were integrated.

"I'll never forget a friend of mine saying, `Wouldn't you know the first year Coloreds get in, you could have been all-Maryland.' " Deford laughs at the memory of someone's mistaking him for an athletic phenom. Somehow he knew even then that he wasn't going to be making a name for himself with a ball in his hands.

The suspicion was confirmed at Princeton, where he didn't exactly light up the arena. In his sophomore year, the coach, Cappy Cappon, took him aside to offer his appraisal. "Deford," he said, "you write basketball better than you play it."

Deford knew it, too, particularly the part about writing. "As soon as I could write, I wanted to be a writer. I was always encouraged. Everyone liked what I wrote."

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