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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
Well, anyway, the Sun had a column called “The Sun’s Rays,” written by members of the staff who had run across a story they wanted to enlarge. Mr. Whitman, who handled the “The Sun’s Rays”—we used to call him the “good gray features editor”—one day he called me over and said, “Your story is in the paper today. You’ll find an extra $10 in your paycheck.” I said, “Thank you,” and then somebody was hollering, “Boy!” at me and sent me over to the slanting shelf of newspapers to look up some fact for one of the stories he was rewriting. I was doing that when, after a little bit, the same voice said to me, “Mr. Heinz?” and I thought, That’s the first time I’ve heard that. I’m 24 years of age, and I’m now an adult.
It was Mr. Speed [Keats Speed, the Sun ’s venerable managing editor]. So I said, “Yes, sir,” and Speed said, “Mr. Whitman told me that you wrote that piece on ‘The Sun’s Rays’ page.” I said, “I did, sir.” And he said, “Let me give you a little advice. Don’t let anyone ever try to tell you how to write.” This came as a surprise to me, of course, and I almost walked home on the air over the elevated tracks. That gave me the curious idea that maybe I could really be a writer.
Was there any benefit to having apprenticed that long as a “boy” before you got the call to the majors, so to speak?
I think there was. I always had an affinity for the loser. Maybe starting as a kid who spoke German at the wrong time, then being a failed athlete in high school and feeling a certain inferiority, gave me the advantage, as a writer, of learning that you always find the best stories in the loser’s dressing room. Everybody is a loser, let’s face it. None of us wins every game, and none of us is going to live forever, so I took any opportunity I had to write about those who are neglected, without exaggerating anything or making them out better than they were. And if it encouraged them, then that made me feel good. Once in a while I’d get letters. I wrote about Ralph Branca [the Dodgers’ pitcher who gave up Bobby Thomson’s epic home run that lost Brooklyn the 1951 pennant] after he had his bad time. He was a lovely, self-effacing human being who in this instance turned out to be a loser, if that’s what a loser is. I think maybe in life he was a lot more than that. I got a letter from his sister, who said, “You understand Ralph as well as anyone in our family.” Well, that’s nice.
You became a columnist. Why wasn’t that enough?
I wasn’t going to be the best columnist in New York. Red Smith was a better columnist than I would ever be. Also, I couldn’t explain what I knew about a subject in 750 or 800 words. So when I started to write for magazines, I could expand it and do a better job. The person who suggested I go still longer and try a book was a friend of mine, George Hicks, of NBC, who did the first story on D-day to get out. He was on the command ship for the invasion of Normandy. After he read my stuff from the war, he kept after me to write a book, and I ended UD dedicating my novel The Professional to him, for convincing me that I could go 15 rounds. The Professional was a book that showed me you can enjoy hard work if you’re doing a good job. My philosophy of professionalism is that if there is a leak in the basement and you are a plumber and you are called in the middle of the night, then you go there and you handle that leak and weld that joint or whatever you have to do. And if you’re soaking wet, then you go home and you clean your clothes, and you can sleep knowing that you did what you had to do. If everybody behaved this way, it would be a far better world. When The Professional came out, some of the critics said, “It’s a fine book, but by a sportswriter.” One day my editor called and read me a telegram over the phone. When I hung up, my wife, Betty, said, “Who was that?” and I said, “That was my editor. He read me a cable: TO EVAN THOMAS, HARPER BROS. QUOTE. THE PROFESSIONAL IS THE ONLY GOOD NOVEL I’VE READ ABOUT A FIGHTER AND AN EXCELLENT FIRST NOVEL IN ITS OWN RIGHT. ENDQUOTE. HEMINGWAY . So she said, “Well, I think we should have a drink about this.” Our daughters were building a snowman on the front lawn. I made a fire in the fireplace and poured two bourbons on the rocks and sat down, and she said, “You know, I’m remembering those times when you were working five, six days a week at the Sun , and you were trying to do your short stories on a card table up in our bedroom. You’d work all day sometimes, and you’d come down looking so discouraged, and you’d go to the bookshelf and take down something of Hemingway’s and read it. So this must be the greatest day of your life.” And I said, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to cry.” And she said, “A tear just dropped in my drink.”
How did you become a war correspondent?
This is another example of my luck. Joe Mackey and I were about the same age, and we wrote quite alike, in the sense that they used us for feature stuff. The first spring day, they’d send one of us up to the Bronx to do a story on “the latest arrival”—there’s a new baby somewhere in the zoo every year—and at the first snowstorm one of us would go up to Central Park. Then, when the war started, the Sun looked around, and they knew both Joe and I were likely to be taken by the Army, but they decided on me. They called me in and said, “How would you like to be our war correspondent?” I said, “Thank you very much.”