“Bill Heinz, Here”
As a young combat correspondent from the liberation of France all the way to the Rhine, Heinz said he “never forgot” that he slept safely away from the front each night, while soldiers stayed in harm’s way, an attitude far removed from the self-glorying accounts of embed journalism. “If the correspondent was of draft age, as was this one,” Heinz wrote, “and he accepted that his own career as a journalist was being advanced while those of his peers, his protectors, were on hold, some forever, he knew for the rest of his life he would be in debt.” Heinz, who’d been bullied during the First World War as a small child for speaking the Kaiser’s tongue his family used at home, as a war reporter confronted the horrors of what the Fatherland had become under the Nazis. He wrote some of the finest dispatches of anyone in the war about the D-day invasion, the execution of Nazi spies, the destruction of the Huertgen Forest, and the false calm of a moonlit jeep ride in the “cool silver quiet” through Belgium. When he returned to the U.S., Heinz was offered a distinguished job in the paper’s Washington bureau, since it was assumed that general reporting for the city desk would now be beneath him. He opted instead for sports, and that, as they say, would make all the difference.
Ten years ago, I lucked into a book project with the great Heinz, an old writer’s writer whose books (other than MASH) had by then fallen out of print. Our project was co-editing a new edition of Heinz’s classic Fireside Book of Boxing, what he described as a “museum” of boxiana that had been published just before the gabby advent of Cassius Clay, over whom we politely differed. But Heinz was open to all good writing about his favorite sport, and my job was to send him fight pieces from the last 40 years (Mailer, Barich, Remnick, McIlvanney) and see if any might become new exhibits in his updated “museum.” The first time he called me I had nervously sent him a sheaf of my boxing reportage with a shrill cover letter about my qualifications. “Bill Heinz here,” a husky older voice turned up on my phone days later, sounding both wised-up and cheery, hardboiled and curious. “Ya got a nice little style there,” he said, followed by a laugh. Nothing any teacher has said to me from grade school to college thrilled me like those seven words from the great Heinz.
I supplemented the many fight stories I sent him with the occasional tape of recent bouts that had either come on too late at night or seemed ridiculously pricey to a man who’d spent so many years at ringside for free. The fight tapes always drew a phone call afterward, “Bill Heinz here,” when the master would offer his analysis of these shining lights in a game that had otherwise gone to hell. Often Heinz would ask after my solid-looking young son, whom he’d nicknamed “Butkus.” Later the tape would come back, marked by an incisive observation on a post-it. (“Thanks again,” it says on an early De La Hoya performance, “Later there came to mind the classic manner in which Arguello handled Mancini. It’s almost sacrilege to compare them.”)
Heinz’s great boxing novel The Professional (1958) famously opens with a description of the flashing human scenes along an elevated section of subway line through the Bronx. While the sports writer who tells the story is riding out to visit his favorite fighter, the book’s opener is really a stretched out version of Heinz’s very first published piece — which the Sun ran while he was still a copyboy—an evocation of the women traveling to jobs as domestics downtown and passing tenement life on his ride to work the overnight “lobster shift.” Heinz’s signature — a quiet empathy and gift for clean, compressed observation — was evidently there from the first in that early published sketch. The vital stuff really can’t be taught.
In later years, only a man with Heinz’s gift for self-effacement could tell a story about a night that began with drinking with Rocky Marciano and ended with breakfast in Ted Williams’s kitchen and not seem to be dropping names. Many more famous writers made pilgrimages to Heinz’s home in woodsy Vermont, including the novelist Richard Ford, who wrote the old sportswriter an awestruck letter about how he lost his nerve on the edge of the property. Although towards the end Heinz became increasingly puzzled by outside events, I only encountered his pricklishness once, when I published an interview with him for American Heritage in 2004. “Why should the reader care about this W.C. Heinz?” he wrote in old man scrawl beside my intro to the transcript. Why, indeed.