The hardworking staff yields to no man in our admiration and respect for Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin, hosts of the excellent Hang Up and Listen podcast. But we feel compelled to take issue with last week’s edition in which they talked with Atlantic writer John Swansburg about the late Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire piece, The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!
Around 1:08:41 Fatsis says this:
“[Wolfe] also understood how to write an effective piece of sportswriting. This is also the dawn of magazine-ery sportswriting. [George] Plimpton had already written some of his immersive books about playing professional sports, trying to reveal them to the public, but what Wolfe does is create a piece of literature about professional sports the likes of which people hadn’t read . . . “
All due respect, Stefan, they had.
Because the great W.C. Heinz had beaten Wolfe to the punch over a decade earlier.
Exhibit A: From Mark Kram Jr.’s New York Times review of The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz.
Heinz was unsurpassed when he was working the offbeat corners of sports. It was in these unexamined shadows that he found his voice. In his classic column “Death of a Race Horse,” he compels us to look beyond the winner’s circle to an all-too-common event in horse racing, the sudden breakdown of a prized thoroughbred. Only 800 words or so, it is rendered with careful observation and unerring dialogue, hallmarks of Heinz’s style that would be so influential to David Halberstam and other practitioners of the New Journalism a generation later.
(You can read the 1949 “Death of a Race Horse” column here.)
Exhibit B: From the introduction to The Top of His Game by its editor Bill Littlefield, who noted that in the 1950s delivery trucks for the New York Sun featured banners saying, “W.C. HEINZ Read His Human Interest Stories On Sports Daily In The Sun Buy It Today.”
The work that appeared in the Sun under the byline “W.C. Heinz” can be categorized as “human interest stories” in the same sense that the work by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ernest Hemingway can be so categorized.
Like Faulkner, Bill Heinz understood the significance of place . . .
Like O’Connor, he understood that the people at the edges of any endeavor offered, by necessity, original perspectives on a culture into which they would never fit.
Like Vonnegut, he wrapped his darkest observations in humor . . .
Like Hemingway, he never wasted a word.
Check out, for instance, Heinz’s 1960 piece for Sport magazine, The Floyd Patterson His Friends Know.
The strange thing about Floyd Patterson is that he wasn’t cut out to be a fighter. This sounds ridiculous, I guess, for here is a man who brings immense natural skill and complete dedication to his craft. He was the youngest heavyweight champion of all time; he is the only one ever to regain the championship. He must go down in the history of his sport as one who belonged to it as few men have.
If the record were to stop right now, it would show that Floyd has won 36 of 38 fights, 25 by knockouts. The public image of the man who fires the punches is not, however, a true representation of the man I know. What I want to try to do now is present Floyd as he is, the way the record book can never show him, but the way his friends know him.
Bill Heinz profiled athletes from jockey Eddie Arcaro to major league outfielder Pete Reiser (“The Man They Padded The Walls For”) in numerous magazine pieces. But his first love was boxing. From a previous post:
I was fortunate enough to interview Bill Heinz ten years ago in his Dorset, Vermont home. 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.
Memo to Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin:
Remember W.C. Heinz.