Schmuck: Frank Deford captures Baltimore sports history in memoir

May 12, 2012|Peter Schmuck

It was one of the true watershed moments in Baltimore sports history, so why should anyone be surprised that Frank Deford — one of the greatest sportswriters of the modern era and a Charm City native — would be there to witness it?

Well, slightly after the fact.

The date was July 4, 1944 and the place was Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street, where a 5-year-old Deford stood with his mother and looked at the smoking pile of debris that remained of Oriole Park. The old wooden stadium was destroyed the night before by a fire that some now credit with helping turn Baltimore into a major league city.

Maybe that wasn't the catalyst for a great half-century as a journalist, author and sports commentator, but it was certainly a moment that helped shape the modern era of Baltimore sports, since it forced the International League Orioles to move into cavernous Memorial Stadium and proved the area capable of supporting a big league franchise.

The youthful Deford would have a figurative front row seat for the arrival of the major league Orioles, the birth of the All-American Conference Colts and their emergence as a cornerstone NFL team, and the rise of the two iconic Baltimore sports heroes of the period —Johnny Unitas andBrooks Robinson.

Deford recounts that nostalgic period in his beloved hometown and five decades of encounters with the most famous sports and media figures of our time in his new memoir, "OVER TIME: My Life as a Sportswriter" (Atlantic Monthly Press).

"It (the sports landscape) changed completely because Baltimore, of all the major cities in the country, had less important sports," Deford said. "There were a lot of places, including Los Angeles, that didn't have major league baseball. There were other really large cities that had no major league teams, but at least they had college football. We had Hopkins Lacrosse. That was it.

"I can remember going to see the minor league Orioles. Until I was 15 years old, we'd go down with 3,000 people to watch them play the Syracuse Chiefs of the Jersey City Little Giants. That's what passed for Baltimore sports."

Of course, Baltimore also had the Preakness Stakes and a rich sports history that included the first African-American boxing champion (Joe Gans) and a fairly important role in the formation of Major League Baseball at the turn of the 20th century. That history is being brought to life as part of The Sun's 175th Anniversary celebration, and Deford is a perfect choice to help because he started his distinguished professional journalistic career as a copy boy at the Evening Sun.

The Sun is counting down its 175 greatest Maryland athletes in Baltimore Sun history and we're down to the final five. The No. 1 greatest athlete will be revealed on Thursday (and I really, truly don't know who it will be), but Deford has a pretty strong opinion about who it should be.

Johnny Unitas?

Brooks Robinson?

Cal Ripken?

None of the above.

"Oh no, it would be Babe Ruth," he said. "If you were doing it for the country, it would be Babe Ruth. He was so much larger than the game itself. You could look up his statistics and he was so far ahead of everybody else. I'm not really a numbers guy, but I say Ruth. I just don't think there's any question."

Deford had no trouble picking between Baltimore's bookend sports heroes of the 1950s and '60s for the runner up position on his personal list of the greatest Maryland athletes.

"I would put Unitas next, if you're talking about that era," he said. "Unitas is the one…and when Frank Robinson came to town, nobody was under the illusion that Brooks was a better player than Frank. Brooks was special in his own way and he is in the Hall of Fame, but if you were choosing up sides, you picked Frank first….Brooks was one of a kind, but I've always felt that Unitas created the position of quarterback."

So, it should also come as no shock to anyone that Deford's greatest sports moment in Baltimore history is the "Greatest Game Ever Played" in 1958, which truly christened Baltimore as a major league city and dramatically raised the national stature of the NFL.

"That was the first time that Baltimore had any kind of national recognition," Deford said. "The fact that it was beating New York in New York mattered. It would have been great if we had beaten Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or whoever, but beating the Giants mattered just a little bit more. The fact that we did it and we did it overtime…that mattered, too.

"Let's face it. The NFL would have been the NFL today without that game, but it really speeded up the process. And we were really proud. That really gave us something."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read Peter Schmuck's in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090AM) and at wbal.com.

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