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W.C. Heinz: The Great Communicator

BY Pete Ehrmann ON January 25, 2007
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Communicating by writing is done on a two-way street. The writer, going in his direction, and carrying the offering of all he has put into the book, meets the reader. If the reader, coming the other way, does not bring with him the same perceptivity and sensitivity, intelligence and honesty, there is no real communication.... I am grateful that you are out there and brought so much to me and my book when we met on that street.

W.C. Heinz wrote the above to me in 1981, in response to my review of “Once They Heard The Cheers,” his wonderful book about many of the figures in sports – including Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Floyd Patterson and boxing manager Jack Hurley – he covered in the illustrious career as a newspaperman and freelance journalist that made Heinz, as Sports Illustrated called him several years ago, “The Heavyweight Champion of the Word.”

Heinz’s letter launched a correspondence between us that went on for over 20 years, until just after his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003. Most of his letters were typed on the 1932 Remington typewriter given to him by his father, which Heinz used to write the columns, feature pieces, and books that won him numerous awards and the idolatry of such current literary giants as David Halberstam, Elmore Leonard and David Maraniss. (One letter was typed in shocking red ink. “It is just that all-black ribbons for 1932 Remington portables have long been extinct. I still have a couple of the ‘rouge et noir,’ also on their way out, and reserve the black for strangers who might otherwise think me whacko,” Heinz explained.)

It is a treasured collection of letters from a friend and towering icon of journalism whose comments and advice on matters literary and pugilistic were always as insightful as his seminal novel about boxing, “The Professional,” published in 1958.

“It was meant to be an absolutely honest and accurate portrait of a gladiator of its time, and I trust it is still that,” he wrote to me 24 years later about the novel Ernest Hemingway called “The only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent novel in its own right.” (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that once I compiled a ranking of the top boxing novels ever written for The Ring magazine, and put “The Professional” first. Heinz’s response: “I finally made it into The Ring’s ratings.”)

“The Professional” tells the story of middleweight contender Eddie Brown and his manager, Doc Carroll. The novel takes them through training camp as Brown prepares to fight for the world title, and through the gut-wrenching one round fight itself that has broken the heart of everyone who read the book. The author’s, too.

“What I did in that fight scene ... was to break down the thought, action and reaction to reveal, and thus explain, but without slowing the tempo, the essence of the science and art,” Heinz wrote in a 1985 letter. “I just felt -- and I still do -- that I had boxed a hell of a round.

“When I say ‘I still do,’ I should explain that I haven’t read that passage, or the ending of the book, since it first appeared. I just don’t want to suffer again, watching Eddie Brown lose. That is how much he, and it, meant to me....”

“The Professional” has been reprinted twice to renewed acclaim, the latest time a few years ago by DeCapo Press. In the mid-1980s, Heinz was buoyed by a Hollywood producer’s interest in turning the novel into a movie “as pure and true as the book.” But nothing came of that and several later stabs at it. In 1992, Academy Award-winning actor Walter Matthau wanted to play Doc Carroll, Heinz wrote, “but says the script has no chance. Says he: ‘Way too good.’”

When the internet took off in the 1990s, Heinz was wary of its literary impact. “I’m not for more writers,” he said, “only better ones.”

Once I inflicted on him a piece I had written for an historical publication, and in his reply he said that I had flubbed the lead badly, showed me how it should have been done, and imparted the rule of thumb that served him so well in his own work:

“Early in my struggles as a city-side journalist working on occasional features and searching for the lead, I would ask myself, ‘What is the first thing I’ll tell Betty (his wife) about this?’ Of course, Betty always said that I told my stories better than I wrote them, but we both know how much easier it is to talk than to nail the pelt to the wall.”

In case I still didn’t get it, he put it in boxing terms: “A story lead should identify a writer and what he is about to do as his first moves early in a fight identify a fighter.”

No one was as critical of his own writing than Bill Heinz. In 1990, he sent a copy of a baseball story he wrote called “One Throw.” “It is one of three pieces of mine that I can read after many years (40 in this case) and not want to change a word,” he said. (The others were “The Morning They Shot The Spies” and his widely anthologized piece about Al “Bummy” Davis, “Brownsville Bum.” Both are available in the Heinz anthology “American Mirror.”)

“What I have always tried to do in writing about fighters, G.I.s, doctors, etc. is to find the common qualities that relate us all, and thus entrap the reader into seeing something of himself,” Heinz wrote in a 1992 letter. “I mean the hopes and fears, the aspirations and the daydreams that go with them and the frustration and exaltations.”

A year later: “When, after World War II, Milton Gross got a column in the New York Post, he asked Red Smith for advice. Red said: ‘Be there.’ That’s the beginning of it, and after that never stop looking and asking and learning. Once you’ve got your punches and your moves perfected, stay within them. Never reach. That’s when writers, like fighters, get countered and knocked out.”

Boxing is as true an art form as writing, of course, and the changes in the sport over the years troubled him. “I am still a follower of boxing, but at a great distance,” Heinz wrote in 1990. “Up here on this (Vermont) mountainside I get only the three commercial TV channels and PBS. That doesn’t give me much access, but I too cringe every time one of those morons intones: ‘Let’s rum-ble!’ They have no feeling for what a fight is all about, and thank God they’re not in Saudi Arabia [covering the first Gulf War] for CBS.”

Four years later he wrote: “Once I hoped that when my time came to go I would die at ringside at a heavyweight championship fight, and now I can’t even name the champion. Only part of that is due to the softening of my squash.”

But he always defended the sport from its detractors. “HBO has been pestering me about fixed fights and dishonest officials,” he said in 1999. “I tell them that they’ll run the last dishonest manager or official out of boxing on the same day that the last dishonest bank teller goes over the hill with the contents of the till. I said, sure, Frankie Carbo went to prison. But so did a guy named Whitney who, at the time of the crash, was President of the New York Stock Exchange.”

His letters shrewdly assessed boxers such as Archie Moore (“the most scientific of the fighters of my time and, outside the ropes, the most inventive”); Sonny Liston (“a thug, and once you took his gun and made it man-to-man he was a coward”); and Mike Tyson, who “might have been the best heavyweight of all time. That, of course, is like saying the Paganini could have been as great as Heifitz if he had just played the violin better. What I mean is that Tyson had the native physical talent and mental capacity to be the greatest if he had come into the hands of (Jack) Hurley [the model for Doc Carroll in “The Professional”] rather than (Cus) D’Amato, who was a theorist but not a teacher.”

Then there was Muhammad Ali, of whom Heinz wrote in 1992: “Thanks to TV, the telephone, air travel and other national and international impediments to serious thought, there is no question that Ali had the greatest impact world-wide of any sporting figure. What, however, Joe Louis, with his quiet dignity, modesty and honesty, accomplished toward bringing the races closer, Ali, with his exhibitionism, insufferable in any individual regardless of race, and with his adoption and advocacy of the credo of the Black Muslims, counteracted.

“He was the greatest athlete ever to hold the heavyweight title, and did more than any other to draw public attention to, and increase the popularity of, boxing. For that he should be forever honored, but it remains that he was a runner and a grabber, couldn’t punch to the body or fight on the inside, and introduced into the art form that is boxing that shuffle step that was in as bad taste and demeaning there as it would be interjected into a performance of ‘Swan Lake.’”

But he didn’t begrudge those who thought and wrote otherwise, and understood their cheerleading for Ali. “There was a saying in the fight game that every boxing writer falls in love with a fighter, sooner or later and mostly sooner,” he wrote. “My affair was with (Rocky) Graziano.”

There was, however, a danger in getting too close: “We journalists who associate with the famous may sometimes contribute to the stardom in the belief that some of that star dust will end up on our shoulders.” All too often, however, “it’s dandruff.”

While my own writing caused some eye-rolling, I hit a home run when, in 1992, I introduced Heinz to Hugh McIlvanney via the latter’s first collection of boxing pieces. “The best since Joe Liebling and -- this being boxing coverage only -- maybe even better,” was his verdict. “Joe made sport of the sport, always above it and covering the contestants and their coteries as characters, not whole people. That is not bad, for he did it so well that he gave it first time respectability among the literati and intelligentsia of his time and since, but McIlvanney’s work seems to be not only about but of those who fight and why and those who surround and follow them.”

Heinz referred to McIlvanney after that as “boxing’s best friend,” and said, “I have read no one else who so succinctly and so well reveals the meaning of boxing and why it has survived for 3000 years in spite of itself and society.”

My last note from Heinz came in 2004, after I wrote to congratulate him on his IBHOF induction. By then debilities associated with advanced age were ganging up on him, and he had moved from his beloved mountainside into an assisted-living facility. But, he wrote, “As an 89-year-old who has had an adventurous life, I have no complaints.”

Bill Heinz turned 92 on January 11 of this year. I have been loathe to bother him again, but visit him often on that street about which he spoke in his first letter. It is always a rewarding and worthwhile experience and one I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone to whom beautifully crafted prose is as exciting and awe-inspiring as a classic heavyweight rum-ble.

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