During the mid-20th century when there were about a dozen daily newspapers in New York City, three sportswriting giants loomed large.
They were Walter “Red” Smith of the Herald Tribune, Jimmy Cannon at the Daily News, Post and Journal-American, and W.C. Heinz at the Sun.
Of the trio, Heinz, who passed away 10 years ago this past February at age 93 in Vermont, is probably the least known, but in many people’s estimation, the best and especially when it came to writing about boxing. Many consider him the father of the “New Journalism” made wildly popular by writers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe in the 1960s.
Heinz was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on January 11, 1915. After graduating from Middlebury College with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1937, he took a job with the Sun as a messenger.
Heinz swiftly moved up the ranks and worked as a copy boy, city-side reporter and rewrite man.
In the fall of 1943, at 28, Heinz received his big break after being shipped off to Europe as a junior war correspondent where he followed the Allied Forces from Normandy to Berlin.
It was there Heinz, whose first and middle names were Wilfred Charles, said he learned how to write.
“The material was so rich you had great opportunity,” he noted. “The trick was to under-write.”
Ernest Hemingway, the penultimate word-master who liked to fight bulls and spend a round or two in a boxing ring, was also there and the two became friends.
In 1958, when Heinz had his first novel, “The Professional” published about a young middleweight title contender, “Papa,” had high praise for the work, calling it “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.”
Upon Heinz’s return to the United States in 1945, he hoped to find employment in the Sun’s sports department.
Executive editor Keats Speed told Heinz there were no openings, but said that the job as second man in the Washington, D.C. office was available. Heinz was grateful, but crest-fallen.
“I want to continue to learn, and writing sports, where men are in contest, if not in conflict, and where you can come to know them, one can grow as a writer better than anywhere else on the paper,” Heinz said.
Heinz, who wrote four novels including co-writing “M*A*S*H” in 1968, the anti-war classic that became a hit movie and the basis for the long-running television show, took time off for summer vacation.
When Heinz came back to the Sun’s offices, Wilbur Wood, the sports editor, told him a spot on the sports staff was available.
And so Heinz had his dream job and would over time write a five-day a week column, “The Sports Scene,” from 1947 until the Sun folded in January 1950.
Despite numerous job offers from other newspapers, Heinz took a chance and opted to write long-form features on a freelance basis for magazines like True, Argosy, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Esquire and Sport.
It was in this form that Heinz, who actually wrote for magazines while still at the Sun, set himself apart.
Sure Heinz was interested in who won and who lost, but it was the person that he wanted to draw out and make human.
Heinz’s unique gift was his keen ear for speech and crystalline sentences. For it seemed that even though you weren’t there in the clubhouse or dressing room, you felt like you were.
There was a trick to it. “The writer should be invisible,” Heinz said. “Listen for the way each person speaks and get that down on paper.”
Heinz enjoyed being around boxers, cut-men, trainers and managers, and was especially fond of Jack Hurley, whom he said was one of only two honest managers in the fight game.
At a time when the pugilistic art truly mattered and everyone knew who the eight weight division champions were, readers of the Sun and in magazine pieces, saw such ring titans as Rocky Graziano, Willie Pep, Carmen Basilio, Floyd Patterson, Lew Jenkins, Billy Graham and Sugar Ray Robinson come to life.
Heinz was given a portable black Remington typewriter in 1932, and used it during the entirety of his legendary career, penning memorable features, or more precisely, beautifully written short stories.
Maybe his best and most famous effort is “Brownsville Bum,” which ran in the June 1951 issue of True and has been anthologized many times.
Here is Heinz’s well-known lead: “It’s a funny thing about people. 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.
“That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe thirty times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said that was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.”
In your mind’s eye you can see the action unfold. For Al “Bummy” Davis, it didn’t matter whether he was in the ring or at a neighborhood bar. He was the same person.
Heinz, a five-time winner of the E.P. Dutton Award for best magazine story of the year, never met Davis.
Heinz saw him fight once in person and once when Davis was leaving the New York Athletic Commission in a failed attempt to restore his boxing license.
Still Heinz captured the essence of the man after speaking with those who knew him best.
The end for Davis came on November 21, 1945 when the former welterweight contender was having a good time, drinking beer with friends at Dudy’s Bar, an establishment he once owned in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
That night four armed men walked in and attempted to rob the place. Davis, who would pronounce himself “one tough Jew,” would have nothing of it as he decided to fight off the robbers as best he could. But fists, no matter how swift and sure, are no match for guns.
Another Heinz classic is titled “The Day of the Fight,” which appeared in the February 1947 issue of Cosmopolitan.
In the piece, Heinz, who edited two boxing anthologies, “The Fireside Book of Boxing” and “The Book of Boxing” with Nathan Ward, laid bare what took place leading up to fight night, even if much of it is mundane.
Here are Heinz’s first two graphs: “The window was open from the bottom and in the bed by the window the prizefighter lay under a sheet and a candlewick spread. In the other bed another prizefighter slept, but the first one lay there looking at the ceiling. It was 9:30 in the morning and he would fight that night.
“The name of the first prizefighter is Rocky Graziano, but you don’t have to remember that. The thing to remember is that he is a prizefighter, because they said this was to be a piece telling what a fighter does, from the moment he gets up in the morning until the moment he climbs into the ring, on the day when he must fight.”
The seed for the feature was Heinz’s 750-word column ahead of Graziano’s September 27, 1946 middleweight title fight with Tony Zale at Yankee Stadium.
Graziano came up short that evening, getting knocked out in the sixth round of their scheduled 15-round tussle.
One who was smitten with Heinz’s writing style was David Halberstam, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, who himself wrote seven books on sports.
In the forward to “What A Time It Was,” which was published in 2001 and is a collection of some of Heinz’s best work, Halberstam wrote: “Bill Heinz helped lead two generations of reporters in breaking out of the existing and very rigid codes of journalism, changing the form itself, and making it more natural, at the same time constantly expanding the possibilities of what a reporter could do.”
Halberstam then added: “He was a leader in what was about to become a revolution. He wrote simply and well – if anything, he underwrote – but he gave his readers a feel and a sense of what was happening at a game or at the fights, and a rare glimpse into the personalities of the signature athletes of the age.”
Another admirer was Jimmy Breslin, a longtime New York columnist, who also dabbled in sports. “Heinz was the best,” he said after his passing. “His sports writing was supreme, untouchable.”
Roger Kahn felt that way too. Kahn covered the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952 and 1953 for the Herald Tribune and later wrote “The Boys of Summer,” published in 1972, which stands as his magnum opus and is simply the finest baseball book ever penned.
“Heinz could make sentences sing, but his special gift was somehow to sound the chord of music that was the man,” Kahn explained. “The subject of his profiles lived and breathed and laughed and wept with unforgettable vitality.”
At the end of 1999, Halberstam was asked to be a guest editor along with Glenn Stout for the very-thick and important book, “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.”
It was a collection of the best sports stories by writers such as Smith, a close friend of Heinz’s, Cannon, Frank Deford, A.J. Liebling, Grantland Rice, Jim Murray, John Lardner, Gary Smith, William Nack, Norman Mailer, John Updike, George Plimpton, Roger Angell, David Remnick and many others.
A few writers had two selections included. Heinz, who co-wrote the bestselling “Run To Daylight” with Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1963, contributed three stories.
They were “Brownsville Bum,” “The Ghost of the Gridiron” about football star Harold “Red” Grange and “The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete,” about one-time Dodgers sensation Pete Reiser, which appeared in True in March 1958.
Former sportswriter John Schulian read the latter when it appeared and later wrote on Heinz’s passing that the piece had a profound impact and could very well have set in motion Schulian’s eventual career choice.
Jeff MacGregor’s well-crafted feature in Sports Illustrated on September 25, 2000 was published after he spent time with Heinz in Vermont.
“He learned to strip the artifice from his work,” MacGregor wrote. “His style emerged, a refined transparence in which the ‘I’ largely disappeared and what the reader got was pure story.”
In MacGregor’s story, Heinz, who was elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004, explained his writing process.
“It’s like building a stone wall without mortar,” he said. “You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”
In 1979, “Once They Heard The Cheers,” a book in which Heinz revisited some of his favorite subjects over the course of several years, came out.
That same year I was a senior at UCLA and happened to walk into a nearby bookstore in Westwood Village, where I saw the book and picked up a copy.
All the pieces are well-done and memorable, but my favorite is “The Greatest, Pound-For-Pound.”
Heinz’s initial paragraph was straightforward and maybe a little bit sentimental. “When I am old, I wrote more than twenty years ago, I shall tell them about Ray Robinson. When I was young, I used to hear the old men talk of Joe Gans and Terry McGovern and Kid McCoy. They told of the original Joe Walcott and Sam Langford, of Stanley Ketchel and Mickey Walker and Benny Leonard. How well any of them really knew those men, I’m not sure, but it seemed to me that some of the greatness of those fighters rubbed off on these others just because they lived at the same time.”
Heinz felt Robinson, who is almost universally agreed upon as the finest boxing practitioner ever, was a tough nut to crack.
This was Heinz’s somewhat sad final sentence. “When we got back to the office I called for a cab. While I was waiting for it, he said he thought he would take his five-mile walk, and we shook hands and wished each other well. He went out the door and, through the wide front window, I saw him start up the sidewalk, the greatest fighter I ever saw, the one I wanted so much to know.”
Heinz believed that writing and boxing were intertwined. “A good writer is like a good fighter,” he said. “You keep your reader in front of you, moving him around. You want to keep the reader on his toes, wondering what comes next.”
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