Coming Home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

As a child, he was the publisher, editor, distributor and sole reporter of a Mossway newspaper. At 13, he won a national competition for short story writing. At Gilman, he was a fixture on the campus newspaper and the literary magazine, recognized by students and teachers alike for his remarkable skill.

So he knew early that he would make his living as a writer, although not necessarily a sportswriter. He eventually chose sportswriting not out of devotion to sports but because he loved writing. He believed sports offered as rich ground as he would be able to find as a writer. "I mean, a bill passes Congress, that doesn't lend itself to great writing. But a team beats another by one point with no time on the clock - now, that does lend itself to writing."

At the end of most days at Gilman, Deford walked home alone, up Roland Avenue, across the foot bridge on Melrose above the tracks of the old Ma and Pa Railroad (for Maryland and Pennsylvania) and past the Bryn Mawr School. Although many of the houses of his youth are still standing, there was far, far more green space, which kids, naturally, regarded as their sovereign space. When workers showed up to construct homes in the fields behind the Deford house, Frank and a next-door buddy, Johnny Taylor, pelted them with rocks. "I don't know what we thought we were trying to accomplish. It was like King Canute trying to hold back the waves."

It wasn't their only bit of delinquency. He and Johnny also painted a cat a color that cats don't come in. "We wanted a cat of a different color. We found out that's not a good thing to do to a cat. I think the cat was saved by turpentine, but we were advised not to do it again."

Shortcut

At the corner of Lake and Charles, Deford points to where there once was an estate. "I remember my mother calling and asking Old Lady Miller - everyone was Old Lady this or Old Man that - if I could walk across her property, and she was gracious enough to say I could."

Less approachable was a fellow further along whose scowl intimidated all the kids, prompting them to compose a ditty about him. One of Old Man Andrews' peculiarities was beekeeping. "One day, we opened Life magazine and all of a sudden there was a picture of Old Man Andrews with his face covered by bees. In those days, Life magazine was like CBS, NBC and ABC all rolled into one. Man, this was the biggest thing that ever happened."

At Bellona and Gittings was the pharmacy where the Deford boys stopped for cherry Cokes. To the north were the imposing homes where, Deford says, "the swells lived." To the south was Bauer's, where the boys would stop to pull a performance out of the resident parrot. "You got to remember, this was pre-TV. This was pretty exotic."

And then comes Mossway ("Not Mossway Street or Mossway Avenue. Just Mossway.") Today it is a kaleidoscope of springtime colors that Deford well remembers.

Back then, a lot of people on the block worked at Bauer's. Everyone knew everyone else's names, and neighbors considered themselves friends. The Defords were on the east side of Mossway about halfway up, in a gray clapboard house with black shutters, a spike roof and a brick addition on the south side. Today, workmen are buzzing in an out. Deford climbs out of his Saab and stands in front of the house, taking it in like a hungry man sniffing a newly baked pie. "I used to stand here and throw a lacrosse ball at the steps and catch it with a baseball glove."

His father's domain was the back yard. Benjie secretly wished to be a farmer and spent his happiest hours working in his garden. He also, oddly enough, kept chickens and sold eggs to the neighbors. Every so often, he also slaughtered a hen, an event neighborhood kids regarded as a must-see. "That was even better than the parrot."

While Deford stands just beyond the front yard, a Volvo pulls up and a man in T-shirt and shorts gets out. "I'm the owner," says Royce Prichett, obviously wondering what the attraction is. When Deford tells him he grew up here, Prichett graciously invites him inside to look around. Deford is like a kid entering an amusement park. He hasn't been here since 1981, when he helped move his elderly parents to an apartment. Both of them are now dead.

Prichett and his wife Michele have done much renovating. There's a new addition in the rear and a swimming pool where the garden was. ("A pool on Mossway? Deford says, "I can't get over that.") But for all the changes, Deford can still see it as it was. "That's where the Christmas tree was," he says in the living room. Upstairs are three bedrooms that the boys revolved through. To one side is what was his parents' bedroom. His father slept on the left, his mother the right. "She would read on her side, but he'd always say his prayers and go right to sleep."

On the day his parents moved out, Deford, finding himself in the attic, couldn't resist a final flourish. He carved something into the wall. "I wrote something drippy like 'Frank Deford was here' or 'God bless this house.' "

After having his fill, Deford thanks the Prichetts (they received flowers from him Monday), steps back outside and folds himself into the Saab.

Though his work has taken Deford around the world and his name is known everywhere in this country, he says he always appreciated growing up in Baltimore. There's something gained from coming of age in a town with an inferiority complex. "I'm a different person for growing up in Baltimore as opposed to Washington or Philadelphia or a city that was smug about itself."

Even more, he is grateful for the years on Mossway. "A lot of me was formed by the time I left Mossway. The rest was just polishing and buffing."

He accelerates away from Mossway now, bound for more stories in distant places, but fortified by the contentment of this particular place.

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