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Mostly, He Wrote About Sports

Matt Schudel

W.C. Heinz died last week at the age of 93. His name may not mean much to most people, but to journalists and to sportswriters in particular, he is practically a god.

Heinz had the misfortune to write for newspapers and magazines that were always going out of business. The newspaper for which he wrote five columns a week in the 1940s, the New York Sun, folded on Jan. 3, 1950. Then, spurning the offers of other papers, he became a magazine writer, specializing in profiles and wistful tales of lost glory. (The title of his 1977 sports collection is called "Once They Heard the Cheers.") But the magazines Heinz wrote for -- Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, Argosy, True and Look -- vanished as surely as the setting Sun.

But what Heinz wrote for those now-departed publications was little short of magical. He was one of the best sportswriters during the golden age of sportswriting, when New York had nine newspapers, and their writers were more famous than the athletes they covered. No one under 50 may remember the names of Grantland Rice, Damon Ruynon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling, Frank Graham and Paul Gallico, but they were journalistic superstars in their day. And, according to a wonderful Sports Illustrated profile by Jeff MacGregor in 2000, "Bill Heinz, byline W.C., was perhaps the purest writer among them, the writer other writers read."

To prepare for his obituary, I spent much of the weekend reading about W.C. Heinz and reading pieces he had written. I realize now that I probably read some of Heinz's original stories in the old Sport magazine, which constituted much (too much, maybe) of my childhood reading. I included some quotations from him in today's obituary in The Post, but there were so many more I could have chosen. Heinz was also the pseudonymous co-author of the novel "MASH," taking the Korean War stories of Richard Hornberger and turning them into a readable story, but the people who admire him don't care about "MASH." They care about the way Heinz handled the story of Al "Bummy" Davis, a scrappy boxer from Brooklyn who was good enough to fight for the welterweight title but who couldn't stay away from trouble, in the ring or out. As I quoted in the obit, "Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain..."

This passage, from Heinz's 1951 profile in True magazine, "Brownsville Bum" gives the flavor of Bummy's life -- the "Zivic" refers to onetime champ Fritzie Zivic, a notoriously dirty fighter -- as well as Heinz's lean, evocative prose. (Note how he uses the ungrammatical "good" to give a sense of Bummy's world.)
" 'So you're Al Davis?' one of the hoods said. 'Why you punch-drunk bum.'
"What did they expect Bummy to do? What did they expect him to do the night Zivic gave him the thumbs and the laces and walked around the referee and belted Bummy? Bummy could hook too good ever to learn how to hold himself in, if you want the truth of it.
"That was really the trouble with Bummy. Bummy blew school too early, and he didn't know enough words. A lot of guys who fought Zivic used to take it or maybe beef to the referee, but Bummy didn't know how to do that. A lot of guys looking at four guns would have taken the talk and been thinking about getting the number off the car when it pulled away, but all Bummy ever had was his hook."

Jimmy Breslin, the New York columnist, has called "Brownsville Bum" the best magazine sports story ever written. He may be right, except that there are so many others by Heinz that are almost as good. Take "So Long, Rock," his profile of boxer Rocky Graziano, which contains possibly the single greatest quote from an athlete. Graziano, who beat Tony Zale for the middleweight title in 1947 but lost to him in two other epic fights, describes his battles with Zale:
" 'I wanted to kill him,' he said. 'I got nothing against him. He's a nice guy. I like him, but I wanted to kill him.' "

For sheer, concentrated pathos, it's hard to beat Heinz's 1949 column "Death of a Racehorse," which recounts the single race of Air Lift, the brother and son of Kentucky Derby winners, who broke his leg as he was gaining ground in the backstretch. Here's how the story ends: "They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault."

Turning to another sport, Heinz profiled baseball player Pete Reiser in 1958. In the 1940s, Reiser was the centerfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but he played so hard he kept getting injured. Manager Leo Durocher called him "the best I ever had, with the possible exception of [Willie] Mays. And at that, he was even faster than Willie." Heinz's story evokes a powerful sense of what Reiser might have accomplished, if he'd only stayed healthy.
"In two and a half years in the minors, three seasons of Army ball and ten years in the majors, Pete Reiser was carried off the field 11 times. Nine times he regained consciousness either in the clubhouse or in hospitals. He broke a bone in his right elbow, throwing. He broke both ankles, tore a cartilage in his left knee, ripped the muscles in his left leg, sliding. Seven times he crashed into outfield walls, dislocating his left shoulder, breaking his right collarbone and, five times, ending up in an unconscious heap on the ground. Twice he was beaned, and the few who remember still wonder today how great he might have been."

Heinz helped create the legend of Vince Lombardi by writing, in Lombardi's first-person voice, "Run to Daylight!," chronicling the Green Bay Packers' NFL championship season of 1962.

Heinz lived in Stamford, Conn., for much of his journalistic life, near his best friend Red Smith, the sports columnist for the New York Herald-Tribune and later the Times. The deepest sorrow of Heinz's life came in 1964, when he was in Miami Beach covering the first Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight. His 16-year-old daughter took ill with an undiagnosed infection. Heinz rushed back to Connecticut, but by the time he reached the hospital, she had died. He later recalled "taking home Barbie's empty clothes."

"He never got over it," his surviving daughter, Gayl, told me on the phone. Barbara Heinz died on Feb. 27, 1964 -- 44 years to the day before her father.

Heinz and his wife, Betty, lived apart for two years before buying a house in Dorset, Vt., where they went on with their life. Betty developed Alzheimer's disease, and Bill (as he was known) cared for her until her dying day in 2002.

Finally, after living in relative obscurity for many years, Heinz was rediscovered in 2000 by Jeff MacGregor, whose story in Sports Illustrated, "Heavyweight Champion of the Word," is itself a classic profile.
"W.C. Heinz is a wrter," MacGregor wrote, "and he tells his stories the way Heifetz fiddled or Hopper painted, or the way Willie Pep boxed -- with a kind of lyrical understatement, with an insistent and inspired economy."

Within a year, the best of Heinz's sports journalism and fiction was back in print, and a collection of his frontline reports from World War II -- he was at D-Day -- was reprinted in 2003.

David Halberstam wrote the foreword to the sports collection, "What a Time It Was." Halberstam says Heinz was an inspirational force behind the 1960s generation of New Journalists, including himself. He summed up the vast range of Heinz's work and also its innate humble strength with these words: "Across the arc of a sixty-year career his fiction has been praised by Ernest Hemingway and his combat reportage compared to that of Ernie Pyle. He wrote the book that made Vince Lombardi a sports icon, and co-wrote the classic novel "MASH." He wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Selma peach march and about the Allied march into Germany to end the Second World War. He wrote about success and failure, life and death, and all the dire business of humanity in the busiest half-century of mankind's history. Mostly, though, Bill Heinz wrote about sports."

By Matt Schudel  |  March 5, 2008; 11:10 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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Excellent article, thanks!

Posted by: hysdavid | March 5, 2008 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Matt: You caught Bill Heinz perfectly: his passion, conviction and enthusiasm. He was a gifted storyteller.

Posted by: terence smith | March 6, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Fabulous. Small point: MLK led a "peace march" not a "peach march".

Posted by: Rick in Duxbury, USA | March 6, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Thank you all for your generous comments. And thanks to Rick in Duxbury for catching "peach march."

Posted by: Matt Schudel | March 6, 2008 2:20 PM | Report abuse

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