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A Life In The Loser’s Dressing Room
A talk with the superb journalist and sports report who was the co-author of MASH and wrote Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fight novel
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
By the time Bill Heinz was in his late twenties, he had gone from copy boy to star war correspondent and had witnessed the Normandy Invasion, the execution of German spies, the liberation of Paris, and the deadly fighting in the Huertgen Forest, where “in a place that had once known a cathedral’s quiet... they were dying between the trees and among the ferns.” Turning down a promotion to the New York Sun ’s national political desk in Washington when he returned home in 1945, Heinz opted for the sports page instead, covering a beat that stretched from New York’s Eighth Avenue fight gyms to Kentucky horse farms.
In 1950 his longtime home, the Sun, shut down. But most of Heinz’s career lay ahead of him, ultimately in books but first in the magazine stories he wrote about sports figures who interested him: the great jockey Eddie Arcaro; his boyhood football idol, Red Grange; and his famous day-in-the-life of the middleweight champion Rocky Graziano. In 1951 True published “Brownsville Bum,” Heinz’s tragic Brooklyn street tale of Bummy Davis, a middleweight fighter who had been a hoodlum and then became a public hero when he died, shot while fighting two gunmen with his fists. According to Jimmy Breslin and many others the article influenced, it 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.” Heinz’s magazine pieces won the E. P. Dutton Prize for sportswriting five times between 1948 and 1959, while earning him the lasting respect of a rising generation of writers. “Brownsville Bum” was a transforming reading experience for the young David Halberstam, who, calling Heinz “one of the pioneers who helped break down the form,” later made him the most honored magazine writer (picking three of his stories) in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (1999). Gay Talese has said, “W. C. Heinz put literary standards in the world of games.” Sports Illustrated has called him the “Heavyweight Champion” of sportswriters.
Wilfred Charles Heinz was born in 1915 in Mount Vernon, New York. His salesman father thought enough of his writing ambitions to buy him the best typewriter he could, when he was 17, and the entire Heinz bibliography has come clacking out of the black 1932 Remington portable Frederick Heinz’s son carried throughout his long career. He dragged it across Europe with the 1st Army; tapped it ringside through the championship reigns of Graziano, Pep, La Motta, Robinson, Louis, Marciano, and Patterson; and used it to cover Martin Luther King’s Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965 and to write his novels The Professional (1958) and The Surgeon (1963) as well as his bestselling collaborations with Vince Lombardi, Run to Daylight! (1963), and, under the joint pseudonym Richard Hooker, with H. Richard Hornberger, MASH (1968), and even a celebrated road book, Once They Heard the Cheers (1979). Now 89, Heinz has lived for more than 30 years in Vermont, but he speaks in a savvy New York style that conjures up the ringside world he wrote about so well. We spoke on several consecutive Sundays in late fall, each time agreeing towait until his adopted New England Patriots had finished the afternoon’s game.
Let’s start all the way back: I’ve read you on Red Grange and your early interest in sports. Then, as now, didn’t a lot of boys want to be sportswriters?
They wanted to be sports athletes. They wanted to be Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey. But if you didn’t have the ability, didn’t have the size, didn’t have the nature to do it, that was the end of it there. I don’t know about other kids, but my interest in what I have been doing ever since came from reading the newspapers. On the way to high school I would read how the Rangers were making out or how the Giants were making out, and it dawned on me that sports-writers were very close to the athletes.
My father used to bring home the World-Telegram. Joe Williams was the leading sportswriter of the time, and he had a bit of a nastiness that I kind of admired. I thought, Oh, boy, you can not only meet these athletes but you can tell them off too. This appealed to me as a kid who naturally felt sort of out of it; I came from a German family that settled here around the time of World War I.
The anti-German “liberty cabbage” era?