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A Life In The Loser’s Dressing Room

June 2024
15min read

A talk with the superb journalist and sports report who was the co-author of MASH and wrote Ernest Hemingway’s favorite fight novel

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?

Yes, that’s right. When I was about three years old, I’d go out on the street and say something in German, and the kids would pound on me. This gave me the incentive to do something that would distinguish me from being a punching bag. Later, in the playground across the street from where I lived, they put on boxing tournaments in the summer. They would match us up, 10-year-old kids. We’d fight three one-minute rounds, and they’d put the results of the matches on a bulletin board at the playground. One kid pummeled me pretty good one day, and when my father walked home from the Columbus Avenue station, he came through the playground and saw I had lost. He said, “If you want to get a beating, you can get it at home here! You don’t have to go to the playground for that.”

“they... said, ’how would you like to be our war correspondent?’ I said, ’thank you very much.’”

One day when I was 10 or 11 years old, there was a real fistfight on the playground, an Irish kid named Frank Brophy, who was probably about 13, and an Italian kid, a shoemaker’s son, who was one of these crowding kind of street fighters. Well, Frank Brophy had a lovely left hand, and this was the first time I ever saw anybody do any boxing; he kept sticking this Italian kid in the nose until it was bleeding and somebody stopped the fight. Now this impressed me in later years because I have seen some awfully good fighters, yet Frank Brophy lives high among them. He never became a fighter, but I wish he were around so I could tell him that he’s one of my best. The shoemaker’s kid, Vie Troisi, who was also the one who had punched me around, did go on to become a fighter. Years later, when I was interviewing Sugar Ray Robinson for The Saturday Evening Post, he was talking about his record, and I said, “You and I fought the same guy.” He said, “You were a fighter?” I said, “No, not really. But years ago some kid from the playground beat me up, and you fought him.” Ray said, “I fought him when?” I said, “I don’t know the date, but you fought him at the Eastern Parkway and knocked him out in the first round.” And Robinson said, “Oh, is that so?” Well, that impressed me. When you get as good as he was, you don’t even remember the guys you knocked out.

My affinity with boxing later on was because during the war I saw this comradeship between GIs who were suffering together, and I found that they were not fighting for Mom’s apple pie or their careers or anything else, they were fighting for one another. That so rewarded me because you always hope that there’s an affinity between all people. It was so rewarding to see that come out in war and then to find it—in a minor sense, but it was still the same truth—in the affinity between the fighters I would see at the gym. At the end of a fight you’ll see two boxers hug each other, and that’s the most genuine expression of its kind in sport, because both of them know, subconsciously at least, that in the ring there was the danger of being permanently paralyzed, the danger of being killed. I think there’s a gladness they share at the end, a great relief.

When two fighters fight a hell of a battle, there’s later a liking between them. This was true of Joe Walcott and Rocky Marciano. Marciano took him out in the thirteenth round of their great first championship fight, but Joe also knocked down Rocky in the first round. Rocky had never been down before, and the next day I was interviewing him and I asked him, “What were you thinking when you went down?” He had a wonderful fighter’s remark. He said: “I was thinking, ‘This guy can really punch. This will be one hell of a fight.’”

You started at the Sun as a copy boy and eventually worked up to city reporter, war correspondent, and columnist .

I got out of Middlebury College in 1937, and there were no jobs around. It was September when I got a job as a copy boy. At the time all the copy boys were college graduates, even though college wasn’t as much in the mainstream. And all we did was answer to the call of “Boy!” So you were a boy until you joined the reporting staff. They called me “boy” for two years.

I had to be down there at the paper once a week at two in the morning for what was called “the lobster shift.” I was staying with my parents, and I would take the subway where it is elevated in the north Bronx. It was a local train, elevated most of the way, and I could see these women getting on, and it was pretty obvious from their clothes and their bearing that they were cleaning women, and we would pass through various sections of the Bronx and Manhattan and Fiftysecond Street with the neon lights and all that excitement, and then we would get to the end of the line at City Hall Park, and they would go into their office buildings and I would go up into the Sun Building. So there was something sociological, or whatever you want to call it, about the scene that moved me, appreciation of these women whom obviously I felt sorry for without saying it in the piece I eventually wrote.

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.”

“A professional is someone who makes every play. there’s no compromise.”

So I got my uniform and all that stuff and went my way, and Joe was drafted and fought in Italy. He’s dead now, so I can say that he just couldn’t take it and shot himself in the foot. He was dishonorably discharged and went back and worked on the paper after that, and the burden grew when it got around about how it had happened. But I felt I could have gone that same way too. You can’t know for sure when you’re a war correspondent. If you’re in the Army every day, though, and going through that all the time... well, I’m not sure what Joe’s problem was in that particular situation, but I could have done it too. Once I saw a kid shoot himself in the hand just before we pushed off into enemy ground, and one of the other kids said, “He shot himself.” That was all that was said. Nobody condemned him.

How long were you there?

I joined up with the 1st Army when I went ashore after D-day. I stayed on the battleship Nevada for 10 days, because we were bombarding the coast of France. My first byline ashore was in Cherbourg when they were cleaning out the port to bring ships in. I was still with the Navy at that point. Then I joined the 1st Army in Paris, because our [the Sun ’s] number one guy in Europe, Gault McGowan, was captured by the Germans. I replaced him as the 1st Army was going into Paris. We reporters always had a little bit of a contest with the 3rd Army because they got so much publicity out of Patton and we had a very quiet general.

How long was McGowan held by the Germans?

I don’t know, five or six days. The Ger mans announced that they’d captured Gault McGowan of the New York Sun . Then he jumped out of a train as it was coming into a station and made his way back with the help of some friendly French people and showed up at the Hôtel Scribe in Paris. I said in the cable: THE CLOTHES FIT MCGOWAN THE WAY EUROPE FITS HITLER. IT’S TOO TIGHT IN SOME PLACES AND TOO LOOSE IN OTHERS . They ran it. You needed a laugh at the time.

After you came home in 1945, how hard was it to write about something as normal as sports?

That was a difficult thing. When I came back, they were going to send me down to Washington. I told the boss that was not what I wanted to do, and he put me back on the city desk. I waited all day for an assignment and found out the editor was too embarrassed to give me something mundane after the war stuff. Finally the sports editor comes in and says, “Keats Speed has changed his mind.” Keats said the sports department could have me.

First thing my editor, Wilbur Wood, told me to do was meet Lou Little. He was a wonderful guy and the coach at Columbia, and he had been one of my sports heroes when I was younger. So I went up there and met him, and I went from there into sports regularly and left the war behind.

It was Red Smith who asked you to write the book about Vince Lombard! that became the bestseller and classic Run to Daylight! Another Lombardi biographer, David Maranis, gives a great account of your settling into the Lombardi house to collaborate on your book. How long did it take you to realize he couldn’t recall any details about his own life?

I said to him, “You have no audiovisual recall,” and he said, “What the hell is that?” I said, “I just made it up. You don’t remember how anything sounded or what it looked like.” He immediately said, “That’s right.”

So the book, which was to be written in the coach’s voice, would have been a bust if it hadn’t been for his wife?

Yeah, if he didn’t have someone who couldfill in the blanks. It wasn’t that he was hanging back, it’s just that he didn’t re- member any of these things. But Marie did, and I would bounce her feelings about people and things off him and—bang!—they’d come up to the surface for a moment. He would say, “She’s right!”

Was Lombardi surprised at what a success the book became?

I don’t know, but I do know that he was very pleased that Coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears liked it. Halas called him up and said, “Where did you get that guy?” Vince thought he meant a football player. He said, “Who?” and Halas said, “That guy who wrote your book. It’s the best football book I ever read.” So then Vince thought, Wow, we did a hell of a job.

A later, highly successful collaboration was with Richard Hornberger on the novel MASH. That must have been a very different experience .

What happened was that a doctor named J. Maxwell Chamberlain helped me write my novel The Surgeon and, previous to that, a Life cover piece about a lung operation. Another doctor, H. Richard Hornberger, had studied under Chamberlain and sent him a letter saying, “That clown who wrote your book might be interested that I have a book I put together from my experiences in Korea.” Betty read it and enjoyed it, which let me know that it was funny—within the realm of decency, once I cleaned it up, since it was full of those jokes that doctors like to make about the body. So that’s the way we got together. Then it took quite a while, maybe a year, back and forth. I eventually tied everything together. As much as it got tied together; there isn’t a hell of a story line in MASH , just a succession of operations and techniques and humor. The only thing that holds it together is the characters and the familiarity that the reader comes to have with them.

Did you work on any of the sequels?

No, I just worked on the original novel. Later on Hornberger got together with a Southern writer named Butterworth, and they turned out trashy things like MASH Goes to New Orleans , at which point I stepped in and said, “Wait a minute. This [Richard Hooker] is my byline, too, and this stuff is crap.”

So yes, these collaborations were certainly different. I’d say Hornberger was interested in writing, and Lombardi was interested in football. Lombardi was interested in good books when he got a chance; his favorite book was probably The Godfather.

Looking back broadly, are there any athletes or events you covered that remain particularly large in your mind down the years?

Joe Louis had a tremendous amount of class. He never knocked anybody else, was always gracious. He was protected because the press respected him for his ability but also because he could take you out with a look. He was that kind of a guy. The press used to approach him as they would approach DiMaggio, very carefully, and ask him decent questions, and he would answer them with a lot of wisdom. The one about Billy Conn—“He can run, but he can’t hide"—that was Joe’s. There were I’ve forgotten how many hundred reporters covering that fight, and Joe wrote the best line.

But my all-time guy was a baseball player named Pete Reiser. When somebody risks his life the way he did, that to me is what professionalism is all about. Who knows how great Pete would have been if he hadn’t wrecked himself running into all those outfield walls. But he was philosophical about it. He said, “If I hadn’t played that way, how good would I have been?” So running into outfield walls was part of playing. He never regretted for a moment that he’d hit those walls. I never found anyone else who had professionalism as strong as Reiser, never saw anyone who had that much promise and then destroyed it. A professional is someone who makes every play. There’s no compromise. Lombardi used to lecture on that: “There are approximately 150 different plays in a game that you have to make, and you have to be professional on every one of them.”


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