Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Retro Sports Win Top Billing

Two sports that rarely see the limelight got top billing last weekend. It was a throwback to the 1950s, a slower time when horseracing and boxing were among the most popular sports in America.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you were following sports last weekend you know the big news was of the Kentucky Derby, horseracing, as well as a big boxing match, all of which sent commentator Frank Deford reeling backward in time.

FRANK DEFORD: Last weekend was weird, wasn't it? Notwithstanding the usual plethora of basketball and hockey playoff games, and Barry Bonds hitting another homerun and Tiger Woods winning another tournament, and "Spider-Man" opening another movie. It was retro. It was up memory lane. It was the 1950s, it was your grandfather's weekend. It was horseracing and boxing on top together. The run for the roses and a title fight that mattered. Hey, for much of the 20th century, after only baseball, the ponies and the pugs were the most popular of professional sports.

Now, of course, they're just niche like foreign movies, ballet and bridge. Whatever happened? The decline of interest in horseracing is easier to explain. It's hard to believe in a country presently chockfull of Powerball and casinos, where millions of Americans actually like to watch other people play poker on television, that not so long ago about the only place where a man want to gamble could place a legal bet was at the racetrack.

Everybody always knew people didn't go to the track to study bloodlines. Facetiously, horse bettors were always called improvers of the breed. So once the sport of kings lost to gambling franchise, the jig was up. This was especially the case because so few motorized Americans any longer had any connection with our beautiful equine friends.

People like so to see what they know race and speed thrills. NASCAR is what horseracing used to be. Of course, nobody much wants to see human beings race anymore, either. The decline in the popularity of track and field is at a peace with what's happened to the thoroughbreds and the pugilists.

That is, there are now so many teams, so many games, so many box scores, so many point spreads, that virtually all individual sports have been squeezed out by the teams that compete regularly. In a crowded world full of so many conflicting images, continuity counts.

As we fans of Paris Hilton and Donald Trump know so well, it's now more important to stay in the spotlight than to be any good at anything. Horses, of course, only run a handful of races before going to stud. Who can get attached?

Boxers, likewise, disappear for months at a time. And when the good ones do occasionally surfaces, as Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, Jr., did Saturday, they come in a price nothing else in sport does. You can see the Super Bowl for free, the World Series, the Masters, Wimbledon. It costs you $54.95 to see Mayweather beat De la Hoya. Pennywise, pound-for-pound foolish.

No wonder so many young fans of brutality don't even know boxing exists anymore. They prefer something known as mixed martial arts, which is so much more like a human video game than the stayed-old so-called sweet science.

Boxing fans, like improvers of the breed, are gray beards. Interestingly, I noted that commercials for the Kentucky Derby included remedies for heartburn, irregularity and incontinence. I thought I was watching the evening news. Of course I'm old myself, which is why, like Queen Elizabeth, I was watching. Please pass the Metamucil while I dial OTB and get down on another exacta.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford's newest book is called "The Old Ballgame," about sporting events that even he does not remember directly - baseball in America at the start of the 20th century. Mr. Deford chugs his Metamucil at member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford
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