It was almost endearing how an ink-smudged, deadline-addicted newspaper editor of yore would squint through the smoke from his cigarette and ask a bright young man why the hell he wanted to write sports. An editor like that was usually about as sensitive as a bolt cutter, but he couldn't resist the urge to protect someone he considered so misguided. The sports page was no place for serious acts of journalism, not in the eyes of a hard case who had come up covering crime or politics or some combination of the two when greed almost inevitably trumped campaign promises. Mention sports to an editor like that and his mind automatically went to the hacks who littered their game stories with clichés and bromides while their bosses were too busy taking bribes from wrestling promoters to insist even on semi-literacy.
Maybe it should have been different at the New York Sun, with a paragon of integrity overseeing the sports department and admirable prose wrapped around the box scores and race results. But as I read The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz, I came to realize that the paper's brass had no more idea what they had on their hands with Heinz than Rocky Graziano did with Tony Zale until the first time Zale sunk a left in his liver.
Heinz—christened Wilfred Charles at birth, known to friends as Bill—was back from covering the last two years of World War II in Europe, him and his 1932 Remington portable typewriter, and the editors greeted him with a $1,000 bonus and a three-month vacation. But they stopped batting 1.000 when they presented him with their idea of a dream job for any young reporter: number two man in the paper's Washington, D.C. bureau, writing features with the eye for detail and ear for dialogue that had served him so well in the war. Washington? Heinz didn't want to cover anything in Washington unless one of the Senators sold his soul to the devil for a shot at the World Series. He wanted to write sports.
The operative word was write. No clerk of fact, he. No stolid keeper of notes from zoning hearings and school board meetings, no matter how large their civic import. Who ever wrote (that word again) a memorable story about such doings unless everything went sideways, which was almost never? Heinz wanted the inspiration he knew was waiting in the bloody gallantry of the boxing ring, the thunder of thousand-pound horses pounding down the homestretch, the piss and vinegar of baseball players who refused to be cowed by beanballs and unpadded outfield walls. He had it in his head to write about athletes as human beings, not demigods or punching bags, and he'd been campaigning to do so for all of his eight years at the paper. And still he was supposed to be grateful for a posting in Washington, where the flannel mouths see to it that self-interest trumps human interest nine times out of 10.
The editors returned him to his pre-war job as a cityside reporter, explaining that there were no openings in sports. His first day back from vacation, he was about to go out on a story about the control tower at LaGuardia when someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the sports editor with the news that there had been a command decision: W.C. Heinz was a sports writer after all.
The life he always wanted began with a feature on Columbia's football team and went into high gear when he became a sports columnist a year and a half later. It ended in one sense with the last story he ever filed. But in another sense, his sportswriting lives on gloriously in The Top of His Game, 592 pages bulging with his most memorable work as chosen by NPR's amiably cerebral Bill Littlefield and published by the Library of America. There have been other collections of Heinz's sportswriting—American Mirror (1982) and What a Time It Was (2001)—but they weren't nearly as comprehensive as what appears before us now. Rich with stories for the magazines that chronicled a bygone America, this latest volume also includes fifteen of his pieces for the Sun, a treasure trove for anyone seeking to trace his evolution as a writer. And still there is more: vast chunks of his last original book, Once They Heard the Cheers (1979), which allowed him to visit the men he'd written about years before, men who had come to know about life in both light and shadow, men who, like Heinz himself, knew the virtue of putting one foot in front of the other and always striving to do things the right way.
It was the code he lived by, a product of his innate decency and compassion and his memories of a war that stayed with him until he breathed his last. You can sense it lying beneath the surface of story after story, but it is out in the open in the first paragraph of The Top of his Game's first section when he writes about the importance of having done "honest work" when America was beating back the Axis on two fronts. It was honest work, too, when he saw a thoroughbred—Air Lift, son of Bold Venture—break a leg in the sixth at Jamaica Race Course one stormy afternoon in 1949 and wrote arguably the greatest newspaper column ever, "Death of a Racehorse":
They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over closer to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The Colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.
"Aw, ———— ," someone said.
It was more than a sports story. It was the right story. And it defined W.C. Heinz.
To call what I'm writing here a straightforward book review would be false advertising. Bill Heinz was a friend even though we never met in person, never shook hands or looked each other in the eye. For the last dozen years of his life, we talked regularly on the phone, about sports and sportswriting, politics and wars and, inevitably, growing old. He would drop me a note every once in a while, printed in perfect block letters, but it was always the calls that meant the most. "John Schulian," he'd say when I picked up. "Bill Heinz." When I was the one calling, he never failed to ask one very basic question: "Well, how's John Schulian today?" I was too old for hero worship by then, but I'll tell you the truth: I was always thrilled to be talking to him.
We connected because of his classic boxing novel, The Professional, a work so powerful and true and with such a stunning ending that Hemingway said you could read it only once. What did Hemingway know? I've read it four or five times and someday I will read it again. As far as writing about it, the book editor at the Los Angeles Times gave me a chance in 1992 and I called it one of my two favorite boxing novels. The other was Leonard Gardner's bleak, haunting Fat City. Nothing has happened in the years since to change my mind about either. What did happen, though, was that a friend I'd worked with in Hollywood wanted to option The Professional for a screenplay. He didn't know Heinz or how to get hold of him, so he asked if I would be his point man.
"Mr. Heinz," I said when I called him at home in Dorset, Vermont, "this is John Schulian. You may not recognize my name."
"Sure I do," he said. "Every time I get depressed, I read that piece you wrote about The Professional."
The more we talked about it over the years, the more I could hear the ache in his voice when he thought about the fighter and the aging manager who provide its pulse. It was published in 1958, written in six months with the money he had earned on a fat magazine assignment, and rooted in all the hours he had spent in gyms listening, watching, missing nothing. The evidence is right there in The Top of His Game in magazine pieces about Billy Graham—"as good as a fighter can be without being a hell of a fighter," in A.J. Liebling's memorable phrase—and Jack Hurley, whose mantra was "I'm old and I'm sick and I'm tired, but you can't let the bastards know it. They'll kill you." These were men Bill admired, even loved, and a movie would memorialize them. Walter Matthau had expressed interest in playing the sagacious Doc Carroll. Peter Falk had too. Somewhere along the line, two journalists wrote a screenplay that flat-lined. My friend the producer fared no better.
I took my turn in the barrel by basing a screenplay on another of Heinz's boxing pieces, "G.I. Lew," about a wild-haired, hard-punching, harder drinking lightweight who found redemption as a foot soldier in the Korean War. The piece wasn't necessarily one of Bill's best—it didn't make it into his new collection, for one thing—but Bill had an undying affection for the gentle side Jenkins showed when he wasn't wrapping a car around a tree or fighting a bar full of sailors who mistakenly took him for a draft dodger. The only cross words I ever had with Bill were after he read the salty dialogue I'd put in Jenkins' mouth. "Lew didn't curse like that," he said. Jenkins' daughter-in-law said otherwise: "He had the foulest mouth of any man I've ever met." I chose her memories over Bill's, and he never mentioned it again. Soon enough he was back to writing me notes about "our Lew."
My screenplay went nowhere, as screenplays are wont to do, so Bill and I picked up where we left off in our last non-show business conversation. He couldn't get over the multitude of people jabbering about sports on television. Even when I suggested that he might like them more if he read them in their respective newspapers, their voices echoed in his ears. "All this lecturing, all this shouting," he said. "What the hell is that about?"
He never talked much about his wife, though. Betty Heinz had Alzheimer's and he was caring for her, and that was all he wanted to share. She was his responsibility, his love, and he wound stay at her side until the end. After she died, he moved on to a care facility that became a source of rueful humor as this fiercely independent man made one concession after another to age. "I use a cane," he said. "I stumble around. I wear a device so if I fall down, the neighbors will come running." And if he missed a meal, "they send someone up to make sure I'm not dead."
Sometimes it seemed easier for him to talk about World War II. He knew the sound of gunfire and the sight of death and how the seemingly endless carnage almost broke him psychologically. But he also knew about the small moments that proved barbarism hadn't leeched all the human kindness out of the world. He could take such a moment and make it sound like a scene from a story he'd written: a press center in a Belgian hotel where Kaiser Wilhelm had been headquartered in World War I, an American major who avoided going to the front, reporters who had to go there for stories filling him in so he could, as Bill put it, "move the pins on his map around." And one day a young soldier approached the man they called "Mr. Heinz" and told him there had been a pool on which of the correspondents was going to win the Pulitzer Prize.
"Everybody was putting in a dollar," the soldier said. "But we had to call it off because everybody bet on you."
"Well, thank you," Bill said.
"They just sent me up here to tell you how sorry we are that you didn't win."
I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I'd known about them or hadn't been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn't, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—"Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit"—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping "into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man."
Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought "Death of a Racehorse" was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I'm glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there's a newspaper sports columnist in America today who'd be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren't written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let's be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.
It's surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn't a magazine that wasn't happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn't Helen Gurley Brown's Cosmo and Heinz wasn't writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer's wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.
In "The Day of the Fight," Heinz shadowed Rocky Graziano as he counted down the hours to the first of his three historic fights with middleweight champion Tony Zale, greeting him when he rolled out of his hotel bed in the morning and listening to him utter a promise born of weeks of sacrifice in training: "If I win the title, I'm gonna get drunk." Heinz captured it all—the fans watching Graziano eat his pre-fight meal in a restaurant, Graziano correcting someone who says Zale's left eye is bad ("No, his right"), Graziano reading comic books in his dressing room, Graziano feeling tired as night falls and the fight looms. It turns out to be brutal, both men bruised and bloody, both knocked down, both willing themselves to get back up. And when it ends, it is with the stunning finality that makes you understand the quote editor Bill Littlefield uses to wrap up his big-hearted introduction to the collection. It's from Heinz talking about happy endings: "That's not how it happens."
If you read "The Fighter's Wife," Heinz's other classic for Cosmopolitan, you realize that Norma Graziano was all too aware of the perils of her husband's profession. Heinz was with her at home the night Rocky fought Charlie Fusari in Chicago, the house jammed with a dozen friends, most of them women who wanted to listen to the fight on the radio in solidarity with Norma. But Norma wanted no part of it. Listening to Rocky's fight had become as hard on her as watching them in person. Her best defense was to go for a walk. When she went out the door with her mother and a friend, Heinz went with them. It was warm, and as a car drove by with its windows open, they could hear the fight coming from the radio. The windows of the homes on the street were open too, and the fight poured through. "Let's walk faster," Norma said. But it did no good. The fight had trapped them in its cocoon.
It's a stunning scene, one that illustrates Heinz's sense of the dramatic and eye for detail, shot through with snatches of what was being said on the radio and the rising anxiety of the women as they sought a silent refuge. It might have been effective in the hands of a lesser writer, but Heinz brought more to the moment than a reporter's instincts. He had a way of zeroing in on the essential humanity of most every subject he wrote about. Even in a Saturday Evening Post piece about the legendary Stillman's Gym—"The Twilight of Boxing"—he made that doddering brick pile come alive with the dreams of the fighters who train there and the gym's vinegary proprietor, Lou Stillman, who said, "I treated them all the same—bad."
Heinz loved the seen-it-all guys whether they were cracking wise or talking about something he could go to school on. There had to be more to them than talk, though. They had to have the same abiding integrity he did. No one in The Top of His Game has more of it than the star-crossed Pete Reiser, in Heinz's estimation perhaps "the purest ballplayer of all time." Reiser was a five-tool genetic freak who once taught himself to throw left-handed when his right arm was under repair. But he never became the driving force the Brooklyn Dodgers expected him to be because he was forever running into an unpadded outfield wall and damn near killing himself.
I read "The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete" for the first time when I was 13, and I'm not sure I grasped how powerful a portrait of broken dreams and undying love it is. But I never forgot it either, and maybe, in some abstract way, it's part of the reason I found my way to sportswriting. Heinz tracked down Reiser managing the Dodgers' Kokomo, Indiana team in the Class D Midwest League, a classification so low it no longer exists. He was weary and worn, and yet he couldn't stop loving the game that never loved him back. His heart was bad and his rattletrap Chevy was broken down, and he didn't know how he was going to get to St. Louis to see a doctor.
"I'll drive you," Heinz said.
And there is the reason he was able to do the kind of stories he did.
He connected with his subjects in a way few sportswriters ever have and no sportswriters ever may be able to again. The prizefighters and ballplayers and jockeys who invited him into their lives and homes did so with a sense of trust. They knew he wasn't there to betray them, embarrass them, make them fodder for scandal. He knocked on their doors with an honest curiosity about who they were as athletes and people, their hopes and dreams and, yes, their fears too. But when he wrote, he disappeared into his understated style and left the spotlight to his subjects. There was no fascination with the first person, no posing or self-aggrandizement, no time for the stunts that Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson pulled to shine a light on themselves. For Bill Heinz, there was only the story.
When he died in 2008, at 93, almost all of the people he had written about so memorably were already gone. The memorial service for him at Elaine's, the about-to-be-closed literary saloon in New York, was a gathering mostly of old pros he had influenced and young bucks who thought reading "Death of a Racehorse" aloud was the perfect tribute to him, and maybe it was. In their midst, however, was Norma Graziano, and when she saw Bill's daughter, Gayl, she told her, "I knew a lot of newspapermen with Rocky, you know, but your father was the only one I ever liked. He was a wonderful man."
In an odd way, her sentiment is the perfect bridge to a few words about what I think is Bill's best magazine piece and what Jimmy Breslin calls "the greatest magazine sports story I've ever read, bar none." It's called "Brownsville Bum," and when I tell you it's even better than what Heinz wrote about Red Grange and Eddie Arcaro and Jack Hurley and Pepper Martin, the Gashouse Gang third baseman who'd give you the shirt off his back, and his car too, you should know that praise comes no higher. Al (Bummy) Davis was another one of those scamps who captured Heinz's imagination, like Graziano and Willie Pep, in and out of trouble with every form of authority he ever encountered. The thing was, their wild streaks weren't treated like state secrets the way they are today, when team publicists hang eavesdrop on every interview for fear something interesting might be said. When Heinz wrote about Bummy Davis, he grabbed you right away with great rolling sentences so propulsive you couldn't stop reading them:
It's a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn't such a bad guy after all because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.
That's the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe thirty times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy's bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said that was really something and you sure had to give him credit for that.
Here's the strange thing about this piece: Bill Heinz never met Bummy Davis and saw him fight only once. The guy who had such a gift for getting next to athletes, famous and otherwise, was writing about a dead man. He had to find people who knew Bummy, and he had to get them to talk about him, and when he finished interviewing them, he had to find some more. He stayed at it until he could close his eyes and almost hear Bummy breathing. Then he sat down and wrote the kind of story that should have made Bummy sit up in his coffin and thank him.
He was a humble man, and humble men don't beat the drum for themselves. They don't write autobiographies or have a ready quip for every microphone or a manufactured smile for every camera. They do the work because the work is what matters to them, and once it is done, they hope for the best, but they never beg for it. They're too proud for that, and too humble. "Admire the work, not yourself," Bill Heinz used to say. But there was nothing he could do to stop other people from praising him.
Elmore Leonard wrote the introduction to the 2001 paperback edition of The Professional and said it was the first book that ever moved him to write a fan letter to its author. David Halberstam called Heinz the first New Journalist, which must have come as a shock to the fatheads who thought they were the first to apply the tools of fiction—scene, character, dialogue—to narrative nonfiction. Jeff MacGregor wrote a profile of Heinz for Sports Illustrated that was one for the ages, a work of art about a man who created art where others fussed over hits, runs and errors. And someone with a name you recognize—Halberstam or Mike Lupica, Ken Burns or Bob Costas—was always knocking on Heinz's front door while Chris Jones, the owner of a byline that is not to be ignored, started a website devoted to good writing and called it Son of Bold Venture.
But to make a case for Heinz, all I really need to do is list his accomplishments beyond those already mentioned. He co-wrote the novel MASH and wrote two more medical novels on his own, The Surgeons and Emergency. He put Vince Lombardi on America's radar by writing about a week in the life of the Green Bay Packers for his seminal book Run to Daylight! He produced a TV documentary about Lombardi too, and he published a collection of his war correspondence, When We Were One, and he wrote short stories for Collier's and Cosmopolitan. He even covered Dr. Martin Luther King's march through Selma. And I can't help imagining that if he had come along today, he would have written screenplays or created a cable series that would have people mentioning him in the same breath with David Simon of The Wire.
What I'm trying to say is that Heinz had more range than any sportswriter ever. But I remember getting a postcard from him saying, "John Lardner was the best of us." And, indeed, John Lardner was something to behold when he tickled his typewriter's keyboard, funnier than any sportswriter since his sainted father, Ring. But death intervened when the great John L., as Roger Angell once called him, died at 48, before he could show us all the pitches in his repertoire.
The sports columnists best remembered from Heinz's generation are, of course, Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, and though they've both been gone for decades, you can still fetch up a good argument over who was the king of New York and, therefore, the world. Red's column for the Herald Tribune and the Times was like chamber music, light and graceful, brimming with sly humor unless the occasion called for a teardrop the way it did after Rocky Marciano belted out sad old Joe Louis. Cannon, on the other hand, wrote so you could see the blood, smell the sweat, and hear blues in the night afterward as he told the bartender at Toots Shor's he wanted one more for the road. Sometimes his column for the Post and the Journal-American could make you think he wasn't getting enough oxygen, but when he had it all going on, he took the sports column places nobody else ever did.
But did he have the range Heinz did? Did he have the nerve to try new things? Did he have the body of work or the long-lasting impact? Did Red Smith? Did John Lardner? Did Jim Murray, in case you're wondering why the great comic genius of the Los Angeles Times hasn't made it into this conversation? I could go on, I suppose, but the band stopped playing long ago, the chairs are up on the tables, and the barmaid who has to close up tonight is staring death rays at me. And you know the answers to my questions already: W.C. Heinz was one of a kind.
I doubt—no, I know he wouldn't have been comfortable hearing that. In his mind, he was always at his typewriter searching for the right word, the felicitous phrase. It could be agony, and agony didn't necessarily lead to success. But Bill soldiered on because he knew no other way. He kept writing until he had graced us with the stories that make The Top of His Game such a treasure. Self-promotion he left to other writers. He was so bad at it, in fact, that when he was voted into the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association's hall of fame in 1987, he was presumed dead.
Even Bill had to respond to that. But it still took four years for the association to correct the error and rescue his plaque from the back room where departed scribes are honored. "They're finally moving me up to the front room," he said. He couldn't help laughing about it, and I'm sure he'd laugh too if it turned out that his plaque up front came down the day he died. Like he always said, it was never about him, it was about the work.
John Schulian has been a nationally syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, a frequent contributor to GQ and Sports Illustrated, and a TV writer and producer whose credits include the co-creation of Xena: Warrior Princess. He is most recently the editor of Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.
Illustration by Jim Cooke