Twenty-three years ago I was writing for a small paper called The New York Observer. I had just returned from Las Vegas, where I saw Riddick Bowe win the heavyweight title from Evander Holyfield in one of the greatest heavyweight fights of all time, and at a time in my life when I really, really needed it, I found a letter from the greatest American sportswriter my mail box:
R.D. 1, Box 885Dorset Vt 05251
December 7, 1992
I don’t have extensive experience in writing fan letters, so maybe this isn’t the best way to say it, but that is a hell of a good column you wrote for the November 30 issue on the aftermath of the Bowe-Holyfield go.
You timed your shots beautifully and placed them perfectly, and the result is so good that Ralph Schoenstein, a writer not as celebrated as he should be and an excellent judge, sent the piece to me. Since then we have discussed it on the phone a couple of times, and I wanted you to know.
‘Bill Heinz’W.C. Heinz
It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that I am probably a writer today because W.C. Heinz wrote to me back then. Heinz had been a legend among sportswriters for as long as I could remember, and I am happy to report that with his best work collected in The Top of His Game, he will remain one for some time to come.
With the possible exception of his friend and contemporary Red Smith, Heinz is probably the most anthologized and republished of all American sportswriters. Once They Heard The Cheers (1979), the first collection of his columns and stories, is still easy to find, and in 2001 Da Capo published a nice 300-page collection, What A Time It Was, which included not only sports pieces but some of his best fiction, including an excerpt from MASH, his novel about Army surgeons on the Korean War front lines (originally published as The Surgeon under the pseudonym, Richard Hooker) which inspired Robert Altman’s 1970 film and, later, the TV series.
Regrettably, The Top of His Game skips his fiction, but edited and with an introduction by NPR’s Bill Littlefield, it will stand for all time as the definitive Heinz sportswriting collection.
My first letter from Heinz began a nice relationship which resulted in several more letters and one get-together at one of the favorite haunts of sportswriters in Manhattan, Runyon’s.
Wilfred Charles Heinz was the kind of person around whom great stories collected. I asked him to his face if all the things said about him were true. Without asking me what things I had heard, he simply replied, “Not all. But what’s interesting is that they all could be true.”
I asked him if it was true that, as a correspondent in World War II, he spent a night on the floor of a house that his pal Ernest Hemingway was holed up in and that Hemingway had borrowed Heinz’s portable Remington at night and told Bill in the morning, “That thing writes very well.” “Yeah,” Heinz is supposed to have replied, “but it writes a hell of a lot better for you than for me.”
The story, he told me, was “sort of” true. “I made some kind of self-deprecating quip. But to be honest, I never thought Hem was that much better than me, if at all. Fiction, obviously, but as a reporter and correspondent I thought that we were pretty much in the same league.”
The same weight class? “Yeah,” he said with a nod. “The same weight class.” (Heinz did write a novel which is still widely read, The Professional, which Hem called “The only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter.”)
In the judgment of most of his contemporaries—Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Paul Gallico, none of whom ever shied away from admitting it—Bill Heinz was the best sportswriter of his era, and you can add his name to the list of the best sportswriters who thought Bill Heinz was the best. “Red was the best columnist,” he told me, “and A.J. Liebling [who wrote about only one sport, boxing, for The New Yorker] was the best essayist. I suppose there’s a lot of guys about whom you could say ‘He was the best sportswriter of his time,’ and I’m proud to say I’m one of them. But I also think I was probably better more often than any of the others.”
The sport where he was most often better than anyone else was boxing. A.J. Liebling is often referred to as the greatest of boxing writers. (The Sweet Science has seldom gone out of print since it was published in 1956). He wasn’t. W.C. Heinz (and, on a few occasions, Red Smith) was the best. I love Liebling, but some of the pieces collected in The Top of His Game beat The Sweet Science by a technical knockout.
From his profile of Sugar Ray Robinson, “The Greatest, Pound for Pound”:
“When the young assault me with their atomic miracles and reject my Crosby records and find comical the movies that once moved me, I shall entice them into talking about fighters. Robinson will be a form of social security for me, because they will have seen nothing like him, and I am convinced they never will.”
A fan thrusting his face into the open front window of the car taking middleweight champion Rocky Graziano to his brutal 1946 title bout with Tony Zale in “The Day of the Fight”:
“Hey, Rock,” he said, making a fist, “if you win I get married. If you lose, she’ll have to wait a couple more years.”
From “The Artist Supreme” about the brilliant featherweight champ of the ’40s, Willie Pep:
“He was the greatest creative artist I ever saw in a ring. When I watched him box, it used to occur to me that, if I could just listen carefully enough, I would hear the music. He turned boxing contests into ballets, performances by a virtuoso in which the opponent, trying to punch him out, became an unwilling partner in a dance, the details of which were so exquisite that they evoked joy, and sometimes even laughter.”
In “The Twilight of Boxing: They’re Dimming the Lights at Stillman’s Gym,” Heinz skillfully skirts sentimentality to achieve pathos:
“Unwanted, if not unmourned, the most famous gymnasium in the world is passing from existence. To Stillman’s came thousands of fighters from every continent but Antarctica, among them every heavyweight champion from Jack Dempsey through Floyd Patterson. Along with the fighters came some of the most ruthless and venal men I have ever known—and some of the kindest and most sincere. Stillman’s was a circus of slapstick comedy and also a stage on which at any moment tragedy might appear.”
Unlike Liebling, Heinz brought his laser-sharp eye and haiku-like prose to other sports. The giants of the sports pages from the Great Depression through the Eisenhower years—Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Joe Louis, Gordy Howe, Eddie Arcaro—are all here along with some giants you might not have heard of. For instance, all 4 foot-eleven, 120 pounds of Marjorie Clair “Toughie” Brasuhn, queen of the roller derby. From “Rumpus in the Living Room”:
Toughie’s profession “is still new around here, but it has been touring the nation for almost fourteen years. It played this town and surrounding living rooms for the first time last autumn, turning out to be a combination of six-day bicycle racing and professional wrestling while establishing Miss Brasuhn as the most pugnacious female to show here since Katie Jenkins, who, you may remember, used to second and occasionally fight with her husband, Lew, who was then the lightweight champion of the world.”
A writer named Jeff MacGregor, working on a profile of Heinz for Sports Illustrated in 2000, read through scrapbooks full of columns from the New York Sun and came to the opinion that “none of them were bad.” The same can be said of Heinz’s long and short magazine pieces. There isn’t a clunker in the nearly 600 pages of The Top of His Game.
One is tempted to say that his work wasn’t sportswriting but human interest writing hooked to sports; the human interest part, at least, is true. (So boasted the ads painted on trucks delivering the New York Sun for many years: “W.C. Heinz/ Read His Human Interest Stories on Sports/Daily In The Sun.” Heinz, I think, would have insisted that they were human interest stories because they were sports stories.
That afternoon at Runyon’s I asked him what he thought were the greatest lessons he had learned in nearly half a century of sportswriting. He shrugged, paused, and said, “I suppose that athletes aren’t different than us. They’re like us—just more so.”
Did he mean, I wanted to know, the athletes who won or the losers?
He smiled and shook his head. “We’re all losers. It’s something all of us, the athletes, the coaches, the writers, the fans have in common. We’re all losers. Everybody is a loser. None of us wins all the time in games or in life. Losing catches up to you one way or another, in the ring, on the field, or in life. Joe DiMaggio was a loser. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, losers. None of us lives forever.”
Through the work of W.C. Heinz, some will live a little longer