So many thanks to The Library of America and Bill Littlefield for reviving the brilliance of W.C. Heinz in a new book, “The Top of His Game.” Littlefield, the host of NPR’s “Only A Game,” selected the best columns and stories from one of the best sportswriters of all time.
A noted columnist in New York during the ’40s, Heinz became a freelance writer in the ’50s, pioneering long-form sports articles for magazines. When David Halberstam served as guest editor in 1999 for “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” he included three of Heinz’s stories. Nobody else had more than two.
To learn more about Heinz, who initially made a name for himself as a correspondent during World War II, check out the New York Times obituary when he passed away at the age of 93 in 2008. Buried is this passage:
“Mr. Heinz collaborated with a physician from Maine, H. Richard Hornberger, who had been struggling to write of his experiences in the Korean War. Their novel, written under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, was “M*A*S*H” (1968).”
Indeed, Heinz was a tremendous talent. For Littlefield, the new book shows how his sports stories stand the test of time.
“The main reason to put out a book like this is for people to become acquainted for the first time with writing that is as strong and evocative now as it was in 1949,” Littlefield said. “Bill had an unbelievable ear and a magnificent ability of bringing people to life. That never fades.”
The book contains Heinz’s unforgettable classic, “Death of a Race Horse.” While spending a day at the track in 1949, he filed a chilling column on the tragedy of a horse breaking down during a $4,000 race. His writing is so vivid; the reader almost could hear the trackmen’s anxious heartbeats as the horse meets its inevitable fate.
From the column: “They had sponged off the colt, after they had given him the shot to deaden the pain, and now he stood, feeding quietly from some hay they had place at his feet. In the distance you could hear the roar of the crowd in the grandstand, but beyond it and above it you could hear thunder and see the occasional flash of lightning.”
“I read that story 60 times (at readings), and I never can get through it without my throat tightening up,” Littlefield said.
Littlefield points to another passage that demonstrates Heinz’s greatness:
“‘Aw – – – -,’ someone said. That was all they said.”
“I love that because it was so simple,” Littlefield said. “Another writer might have made a mess of that circumstance (by overwriting). Bill never got in the way of the story. It was a great demonstration of letting the story speak for itself.”
After the New York Sun folded, Heinz became a freelance magazine writer. The book includes another classic: a 1951 article in True magazine titled “Brownsville Bum,” about a dirty fighter from Brooklyn named Al Davis, better known as Bummy, who died a hero, trying to foil a holdup.
There also are stories in which Heinz inserts himself in telling the portrait of an individual. He writes of driving former Brooklyn outfielder Pete Reiser from Indiana to St. Louis to see a heart specialist. The technique was a forerunner for the New Journalism of the 1960s.
“He was curious and trusting, and his subjects trusted him,” Littlefield said. “He wasn’t in it to playing ‘got-you.’ Many of the people he wrote about appreciated that enormously.”
The book also had a personal element for Littlefield. He met Heinz around 2000 and they became good friends. Littlefield used to correspond with him. Since Heinz never had a computer, he sent postcards with support and suggestions for Littlefield’s work.
“Eventually, I discovered he was doing that with a number of other writers,” Littlefield said. “He made many valuable and profound suggestions.”
When Heinz died, his daughter asked Littlefield to speak at the memorial service. He found the assignment “flattering and intimidating.” Since there was no way to outdo the master, Littlefield felt it was best to read selections of his stories, including “Death of a Race Horse.”
Littlefield said a highlight in compiling the book was getting access to Heinz’s scrapbooks of columns and stories.
“In light pencil, he would write ‘good’ if he liked a column,” Littlefield said. “I almost felt like he was looking over my shoulder.”
Heinz likely was a hard grader when it came to evaluating his work since they all should have been marked “good.” Littlefield recalled when Jeff MacGregor of Sports Illustrated did a piece on Heinz in 2000, someone asked him what his assessment was of reading the columns and stories in the scrapbooks.
“MacGregor said, ‘There aren’t any bad ones,'” Littlefield said. “How many writers about whom you could say that?”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
The Sports Journalism Institute at Columbia published an extensive edition on the Associated Press Sports Editors convention.
Tom Verducci talks about the craft with Richard Deitsch in a SI Media podcast.
Long-time Associated Press sports editor Terry Taylor gets her turn in the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” series by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism.
Jessie Karangu of the Povich Center interviews Tim Brandt on his long career reporting on sports in Washington D.C.