Wednesday, March 05, 2008

For What the Bell Tolls

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, March6, 2008:
Wilfred Charles Heinz, writer, born January 11, 1915, died last week. For most of today’s sports fans it came as news that he had until lately been alive or in fact had ever lived. Oh, there were a few obituary notices and some fond remembrances in the press, notably Dave Anderson’s in the Times, but not the outpouring you might expect for a man who had been the best of his class, to use a boxing reference of the sort Bill Heinz liked but never would have applied to himself. In a 2000 interview he observed that he was “last in his class,” a survivor from the Golden Age of Sportswriting spurred by Rice and Runyon, Gallico and Cannon, Liebling and the Lardners.

Heinz had started his career as a copyboy at the New York Sun in 1937, worked his way up to the city desk, and then was assigned to cover the war in Europe. The experience only reinforced his natural modesty and his admiration for those who fought because it was their job to do so. “I believe that you should be proud of your product and your service,” Heinz said in 2002, “but not of yourself. How could I be proud of myself after I saw so many kids die in the war? I got a byline and all they got was a line in the newspaper back home.”

In 1933, in an unkind memoir of the recently departed Ring Lardner, F. Scott Fitzgerald had written: “When most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game.” W.C. Heinz knew and respected both worlds. Upon his return from the war to the Sun he settled in the sports department in preference to the more prestigious post offered him, that of Washington correspondent. He wanted to keep writing about those who fought, in Gleason’s Gym or the ballyards, even if sport was only a shadow of war.

By the time the Sun shut down in 1950, Heinz had already begun to feel confined by the 750-word limit of his column. In the years to come he would write longer pieces for Look, Life, Sport, Collier’s, Argosy, True, and the Saturday Evening Post. By stripping down his style he found he could better expose the emotion of his characters. His novelistic approach to sports heroes and bums made him a household god to a new generation of writers, from Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap to Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; they would later declare Heinz a pioneer of the “New Journalism.” According to Breslin and many others, a 1951 article in True titled “Brownsville Bum” — a portrait of fighter Al “Bummy” Davis — remains the greatest magazine sports story ever written.

“It’s a funny thing about people,” Heinz famously begins. “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.”

By 1958 Heinz had already won the E.P. Dutton Prize for sportswriting four times and had earned enough money from his magazine career to take a year off to write a boxing novel. Modest demeanor aside, Heinz suspected he was pretty good, but he didn’t know it for sure until Hemingway said so. In a cable to Bill’s editor after the 1958 publication of his novel The Professional, The Great One had written:


A. J. Liebling, author of The Sweet Science, which Sports Illustrated has named the best sports book of all time, was fond of saying “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” Amusingly damning himself with faint praise, Liebling, who died in 1963, could not have imagined that his bon mot would serve as the motto for a blogger generation for whom words fly from fingers to publication without a stop at the copy desk. For Heinz, even Liebling’s slight bow to speed would have been unseemly. When interviewed at his home in Dorset, Vermont, for Jeff MacGregor’s fine article that ran in Sports Illustrated in September 2000 — a year after the publication of Heinz’s anthology of fistiana, The Book of Boxing — Bill likened his method of writing to “building a stone wall without mortar. You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”

In our television age the athlete’s sound-bite is king, often appearing in print 24 hours after the reader has heard it on SportsCenter. A writer dare not misquote. MacGregor noted Heinz’s devotion to method.

He butters toast the way another man might perform a ritual tea ceremony, deliberate and contemplative — something worth doing right. We take our roast beef sandwiches on white toast out to the dining room. He points to my notebook and tape recorder and says gently, “Why don't you put those away for a while?”

The accuracy of Heinz’s portrayals of Floyd Patterson, or Pete Reiser, or Red Grange was in the flavorful rendition of their speech, not its recording. In taking liberties with the verbatim word Heinz and the old masters were not sloppy journalists, they were artists. By giving more words to dialogue, they could narrate under their subjects, not opine over them.

I have found myself strangely bereaved by Bill’s death, for I never met him and spoke to him only twice, when I published his Book of Boxing. Signing on Nathan Ward to update the anthology that Heinz had created in 1961, I had the great pleasure of restoring to print, in expanded form, one of the favorite books of my youth.

In his Preface to the volume Heinz slyly referenced Liebling’s quip, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”:

Unless a writer has his own printing press he is indebted to his publisher, and that goes for anthologists too. That means that John Thorn and his team at Total Sports Publishing get this one’s thanks and, it is hoped, the reader’s.

I have always been proud of that scant memorialized connection with him. When Bill died last week I went to the shelf for The Book of Boxing and read in the front matter, as if for the first time: “To those who did the fighting this book is dedicated.”
--John Thorn


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