"Sports are always a good distraction from life at its dreariest." — The Sportswriter
The idea behind Inside Sports magazine was always a simple one: let writers write. If writers were given ample latitude to follow their hearts, heads, and whims, then you'd have the most literary sports publication around, which in turn would find an educated readership and flourish. As boxing contributor Peter Bonventre noted in a delightfully corny 1981 TV ad, the magazine is "read by sportswriters and written by sportswriters," so naturally, it's where sportswriting was found. (Along with a "great-looking" sports bag if you act now!)
It worked. For a minute.
Inside Sports had a brief shelf life in its original iteration, debuting in April 1980 and folding in February of 1982. The publication had 500,000 subscribers but lost a reported $4 million more than originally projected, and when a new regime took over at its parent company, Newsweek, Inside Sports was sold off to a small Washington publisher that specialized in children's sporting magazines. The literary dream was dead. The shuttering of Inside Sports did, however, give life to one of the most famous sportswriters of the last thirty years, Frank Bascombe.
"Frankly, if Inside Sports hadn't folded, I would've stayed right there and never written another novel," says author Richard Ford. "I certainly wouldn't have written The Sportswriter."
Ford's time as a professional sportswriter was short-lived, but it was hugely important in his evolution to becoming the esteemed man of letters we know today. When Inside Sports came along, Ford had already published two novels, but neither set the world on fire, and he was in desperate need of a steady gig and a boost in writerly confidence. The magazine job would last only a year, give or take, but it spawned The Sportswriter, which put Ford on the map.
This year, the novel celebrates its 30th anniversary. Published in the spring of 1986, it introduced readers to Frank Bascombe, a man at a crossroads following the death of his son Ralph, and the dissolution of his marriage that followed. Frank's a classic Baby Boomer archetype—solipsistic, self-indulgent, and somewhat entitled—but also a good guy to have a beer with, a solid conversationalist, and someone who enjoys his easygoing existence, or at least he appears to. Being a sportswriter occupies his time but not his mind until he finally begins pulling himself out of despair over an Easter weekend in New Jersey. Frank Bascombe will be risen.
"Frank has it together enough to still be alive," Ford says. "Having a reason to wake up in the morning becomes a kind of measuring stick, I suppose."
Ford has since penned three more novels about Frank's life, including Independence Day, which earned the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner Awards for Fiction in 1996—the first time the same book won both. Take two more novels (the Montana-family-and-crime drama Canada is a personal favorite), three short-story collections, the Bright Angel screenplay, and countless articles, essays, and Op-Eds, and it adds up to one of the most successful American writing lives of the past thirty years. In 2005, Time listed The Sportswriter as one of its "All-Time 100 Novels."
And the inspiration came from a place where Richard Ford barely made a ripple.
From a strictly words-in-print standpoint, Inside Sports nailed it. The magazine was the brainchild of John Walsh, who more or less made ESPN what it is today, and it featured a murderer's row of writers—albeit predominantly white and male ones—including Donald Hall, David Halberstam, Tony Kornheiser, George Vecsey. Hell, one of the two staff writers was a young kid named Gary Smith. The stories they published, pieces like Mordecai Richler's "What Hockey Needs is More Violence," are still revered today.
"John Walsh's mantra was to get 60 percent great stories and 40 percent total failures," says ESPN's Jay Lovinger, who began his long career in sports media as the magazine's associate editor. "We had no problem taking chances that might fall flat, just so long as we stayed on the right side of the line. My basic editorial philosophy is trying to help the writer do what they want to do as opposed to having them file a story I envision. If you read a magazine that has one great story, you've gotten your money's worth. More often than not, Inside Sports had six or seven. Writers felt appreciated there."
Ford views his time at Inside Sports as hugely important, a lifeline that kept him in the game when his writing career was floundering. He landed the gig with the help of his agent, and relished his time there, the regular paychecks, the airline tickets, the freedom to roam about for stories, even though he wasn't entirely trusting of his own voice.
"I was in a highly vertiginous state in my life at the time, and Inside Sports was absolutely great," Ford says. "John Walsh was a wonderful eminence. I was thrilled to get to work for them, so jollied up by the whole experience, I did a fair amount of overwriting. As a journalist and nonfiction writer, it's my chief flaw. In the early 1980s, we were all still a little bit under the influence of the so-called New Journalism, voice-driven and hyperbolic, and we all wanted to prove our abilities by writing something comparable to Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson, writers like that. I'd be horrified to look at those Inside Sports pieces today."
Ford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for 'Independence Day.' Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Ford mainly wrote about football and baseball, but he was most interested in boxing; unfortunately, by the time he formulated a pugilistic story, Inside Sports was no more. With only a handful of articles, the future Pulitzer Prize-winner didn't leave a big impression on Lovinger.
"It didn't strike me that Richard Ford was obviously going to be great, in the same way that I knew Pete Dexter or Gary Smith would be," Lovinger says. "His stuff is quieter, he's not a big self-promoter, and it wasn't apparent what he was going to become.
"Ford bloomed and if Inside Sports allowed him to face his fear of failure in some way... well, I think everyone who worked there would be happy to take credit for the creation of Richard Ford, even inadvertently, but I don't think that's what happened. Sometimes as a writer, a thing just comes along when you need it the most."
That was the case for Ford, and he holds his brief time there in high esteem, even if he never produced a "Silent Season of His Own" to grace anthologies for time immortal; the very thorough Richard Ford collection at Michigan State University only includes a single Inside Sports byline. Ford looks back on his tenure fondly, but when the monthly shuttered, he was back home in Princeton, New Jersey, once again without a job.
"I got kicked back on my heels when the magazine folded. I didn't conceive of the book while working at Inside Sports. At the time I wasn't thinking I'd ever write another novel. My wife, Kristina, had a good job at Rutgers, but I literally didn't have anything to do," says Ford. "I hung around the house and finally thought, Well shit, maybe I'll write a novel about a guy who's a sportswriter. I started it on Easter Sunday, 1982. It's what I had fresh in my brain at the time."
Upon first glance, The Sportswriter feels like a product of English Composition 101: "Write what you know." Certainly the trappings are there—Ford's journalistic endeavors line up nicely with Bascombe's—but it isn't a straight roman a clef. For starters, Richard has never been divorced. He and Kristina, a renowned urban planner, have been married for 48 years. And he never lost a child, because he never had one.
"My general practice is to keep as much of myself out of my books as I can," Ford says. "If it's not your personal life, the real trick is finding experiences to write about that will engage those deferred passions."
Grief is a universal emotion, and Ford was writing the book while mourning the death of his mother. The Sportswriter isn't entirely steeped in gloom. It's often funny as hell, like when Frank gets coldcocked in the jaw by his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend following a lovely lamb dinner in which he met her parents and gun-loving, racist, wannabe-cop brother. And there's the inherent silliness to Frank's profession, which allows him to drift through life in the first place. He can bang out copy without putting himself out. The salary is high (The Sportswriter was published back when magazines were still the primary medium for sports chatter nationwide, after all), and the stakes are low.
"I feel the same way about sportswriting as Frank describes it: it's not Modigliani, but to do it is OK," Ford says. "Sportswriting is like real writing in that your pen pushes words across the page, but at its very best, it's rarely as good as mediocre fiction. You can count the number of great sportswriters on one hand—Joe Liebling, Roger Angell, John Updike's "Hub Bids Kid Adieu" comes close to the highest order—but it's so rare. I think of it as a lesser form because it almost always gets undermined by the subject matter, sports. When you try to elevate the games to little dioramas about larger life, it doesn't work. Fiction is about matters of life and death."
Ford's estimation of his protagonist's career choice might explain the biggest irony in the novel: at no point in The Sportswriter does Frank do any actual sportswriting.
Ford may not have a signature sports piece, but thirty years on Frank Bascombe is his signature character. It took a few years for Ford to realize he had a great modern family saga in front of him.
"A few years after The Sportswriter, I had an idea for a novel, set in the Northeast, about a father taking his son to the Baseball Hall of Fame," he says. "I generally spend a year preparing and I noticed all the notes I was taking down sounded like Frank Bascombe. I told myself, 'Don't do it. You don't have that kind of talent or ambition.' But over time, I realized that not only does it sound like Frank but I have a readership for a known character, so why fight this? Why ignore it? Only then, around 1993, did I accede to write about Frank again in Independence Day."
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Ford added two more Bascombe books: 2006's Lay of the Land, centered on the aging suburban dad trifecta of property values, nostalgia, and prostate cancer; and 2014's Let Me Be Frank with You, a collection of overlapping post-Hurricane Sandy novellas. Over the course of the tetralogy, the fictional leafy town of Haddam, New Jersey, became an important character in its own right—a first-time author by the name of Bruce Springsteen is a fan; the feeling is mutual—as Bascombe goes home again, and again, and again. His roots are in the Garden State. He's tethered to the ground, the same earth that holds his son.
Today, Ford continues to write, splitting time between homes in New York City, Maine, New Orleans, and Billings, Montana. He says he doesn't watch or read about sports like he used to, save for some college basketball and the World Cup, although the day after our interview he was heading off to the All-Ireland Hurling Championships, so perhaps he's just more selective in his old age.
The Sportswriter changed Ford's life. He became a revered first-tier novelist, and enjoyed all the money, prestige, and accolades that come with the territory. (Just this past summer he won Spain's Princess of Austrias award for literature.) But what means the most to Ford isn't all that came after publication; it was the doing of the thing itself, from the first Frank Bascombe scribbles to the memorable final edits three years later.
"When I think of The Sportswriter, I think about the little room in Lolo, Montana, where I wrote it. That is the most pristine of memories," Ford says. "I also remember the day I turned it in. We were living in the Mississippi Delta and the UPS guy came to the house about five o'clock, by design, to pick it up. I wasn't quite finished. Here he was at the door, so Kristina took the guy into the backyard and they shot skeet for 25 minutes, the exact amount of time I needed. While I was in my room putting the finishing touches on it I could hear them out back. Pow! Pow! Pow!"
As a sportswriter, Richard Ford never quite got a shot. With The Sportswriter, he took his.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.