Two recent pieces (not to be confused with Reese’s Pieces) about American sportswriters have excluded one name from the roll call of the best at their craft:
W.C. Heinz, Heavyweight Champion of the Word as Jeff MacGregor dubbed him in a definitive 2000 Sports Illustrated feature.
From the Wall Street Journal review of Ted Geltner’s Last King of the Sports Page, a biography of the venerable Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray:
He won a Pulitzer and found himself in the same sentence with Smith and Jimmy Cannon when discussion turned to the greatest sports columnists ever.
Even more inexplicable, Nicholas Dawidoff’s piece “The Power and Glory of Sportswriting” in Sunday’s New York Times excludes Heinz from its extensive litany of major American sportswriters:
What writers like [Roger] Angell, A. J. Liebling, John McPhee, George Plimpton and the great Red Smith, as well as Sports Illustrated writers like Roy Blount, Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Ron Fimrite, Steve Wulf and — too many to mention! — share is the essence of good sportswriting: empathy.
Let’s get this straight: No one was more empathetic with athletes than W.C. Heinz. Just read his great boxing novel The Professional or his collection of magazine articles Once They Heard the Cheers for proof of that.
I was fortunate enough to interview Bill Heinz ten years ago in his Dorset, Vermont home. (2008 radio commentary here.) He talked about being a World War II correspondent and his “unpayable” debt to the soldiers fighting and dying all around him. ( “For the writer, implanted weaponless in war,” Heinz once wrote, “his two personal enemies are his guilt and his fear, and after a while it was only our guilt that sent us out against our fear.”
And he talked about his preference for boxing above other sports:
Now I gravitated to boxing because I found the comradeship between fighters in Stoney’s gym and elsewhere, very similar to the comradeship I found among GI’s in battle during the war. They were both experiencing things that were difficult to take.
. . . although I’m a great admirer of football and what it brings, I’m a great admirer of team sports, there’s always somebody else you can lay it off on and you can’t lay it off in a fight.
The post also included this:
The great W.C. Heinz is represented in At the Fights by his 1951 piece for True magazine, “Brownsville Bum,” which Jimmy Breslin called “the greatest magazine story I’ve ever read, bar none,” the book notes.
(Along similar lines, Ernest Hemingway called Heinz’s novel The Professional “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.”)
Back to MacGregor’s SI piece:
W.C. Heinz is a writer, and he tells his stories the way Heifitz fiddled or Hopper painted, or the way Willie Pep boxed–with a kind of lyrical understatement, with an insistent and inspired economy. His work has been rediscovered only recently, a happy by-product of all those end-of-the-millennium anthologies and sports shows. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam calls him a pioneer, one of the innovators of what came to be called New Journalism and the literary godfather to men like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford.
Heinz will tell you, chuckling at the pun, that he is “last in his class,” a writer from a long-gone generation of American greats, the sportswriters of mid-century who come down to us now every bit as ancient and sepia-washed as the athletes and events they covered: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling and Frank Graham and Paul Gallico and all those Lardners. Before television, when newspapers and magazines had a heft and resonance unimaginable today, these were the master craftsmen of sporting prose. And Bill Heinz, byline W.C., was perhaps the purest writer among them, the writer other writers read. “At his best,” Frank Graham said, “he’s better than any of us.”
Current writers, take note.