The hardworking staff is a longtime fan of the great W.C. Heinz, and we’re hoping everyone else will catch up with us thanks to the Library of America’s new publication, The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz.
Heinz is probably the best sportswriter you never have read very much. As a war correspondent, then a sports columnist for the New York Sun, he was matched against Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling, Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, the Broadway saints of the business. He was as good as any of them. His eye for detail matched his ear for conversation. His subject choices were wonderful.
He followed Babe Ruth to a final appearance at a Yankees’ Old-Timers’ Day. (“The Babe took a step and started slowly up the steps. He walked out into the flashing of flashbulbs, into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any other man.”) He took us onto the Harlem River with the Columbia crew as it rowed past the coal yard and the decaying docks and a tug hauling a barge. (“Hey!” a man in a blue shirt called from the wheelhouse of the tug. “Why don’t you guys buy your own lake?”) He brought us to the barns at Jamaica Race Track in a celebrated column, “Death of a Race Horse” as Air Lift, the promising son of Bold Venture, was put to death after breaking a leg in his first race. (“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.”)
But, Montville notes, “[t]he selections in ‘The Top of His Game’ are heavy with boxing stories, his favorite sport for its characters and personalities.”
And also for this, which Heinz told us in a 2006 interview: “[A]lthough 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.”
Heinz’s ability to capture that sense of isolation, the loneliness of the weight was both vivid and touching. From Gare Joyce’s ESPN obituary in 2008:
Heinz was at his best with brave men, whether it was in the ring or on the front lines. If he had never covered a fight or a game or a race, he would have left a tidy archive of great reporting about war and civil rights. Even without his newspaper and magazine work, he left a couple of pretty big marks in the book world. He was one of the co-writers of “M*A*S*H*,” not the movie or the TV series, but the book that started the ball rolling. He also wrote a novel, “The Professional,” that Hemingway praised as “the only good novel about a fighter.”
(Our WGBH radio obituary here.)
Above all, W.C. Heinz was a modest man of tremendous talent and accomplishments – a trifecta that very few people can hit. With this new Library of America collection, Bill Heinz is finally getting the attention he always deserved.