Maybe this is how it begins.
The boy, eight years old, is asleep in his room, curled fast
into the pillow, breathing softly. He looks fragile and small
beneath the bedclothes, fine-boned, with a long, elegant face
that seems determined and earnest even at rest. In the kitchen
his mother has washed and dried and put away the dinner dishes.
Standing at the sink in her patterned apron, a damp dish towel
over one shoulder, she scours the last few imperfections from
the white enamel roasting pan. Through the swinging door she can
hear the men in the dining room fussing with the radio.
It is a crystal set, a homemade job, bright copper coil and
wires and vacuum tubes, as complicated and fickle as a human
heart. The boy's father, a salesman, built it himself. With the
headphones placed in the cut-glass fruit bowl at the center of
the dining-room table to amplify the sound, the family can draw
close, lean in over that dark polished wood and listen. Some
nights they can hear KDKA all the way from Pittsburgh, the radio
signal booming out of the sky across Pennsylvania, crashing over
the Alleghenies and down into this trim little house in Mount
Vernon, N.Y. Tonight the signal is weak, and the ghostly voices
coming from the Polo Grounds, from just a few miles south in New
York City, seem distant, interplanetary. The salesman and the
bank clerk from around the corner and Schlosser, the German
butcher from next door, will have to take turns with the awkward
Bakelite headphones, describing to each other what they can hear
from beneath that sea of static. It is Sept. 14, 1923, and
tonight Dempsey, the lethal Dempsey, is fighting Luis Firpo for
the heavyweight championship of the world.
The butcher sits wearing the headset for the opening bell,
knitting his thick fingers as he carefully intones the
announcer's call to his friends, but within seconds he is on his
feet, red-faced and sputtering, repeating again and again that
"Vurpo ist down! Vurpo ist down!" until, without sense or segue,
eyes wide, he shouts, "Tempsey ist down now too! Out of de ring
and down!" The boy's father grabs the headset from the butcher,
trying to make sense of what's happening. It's the wildest round
in heavyweight history! Impossible but true! Firpo's been down
seven times in the first, Dempsey twice, once even tumbling
through the ropes. In the second round, with that stadium crowd
of 85,000 roaring murder into the night and echoing in those tiny
headphones, Dempsey knocks Firpo cold with a couple of short
lefts and a hard, anesthetic right, and it's over.
September 24, 2000
Upstairs, the boy sleeps on, peaceful. Maybe the fight comes to
him through the walls, as if in a dream, a riot of giants. Vurpo
ist down! Maybe, thanks to radio and newsreels and the sports
pages, the heavyweight championship of the world is in the very
air, and he breathes it in by the lungful.
The next morning, at the breakfast table, his father tells him
about the apocalyptic Dempsey-Firpo fight, about the broadcast
and the static, and about the bright-red face of the tongue-tied
German butcher from next door. The boy will remember all this,
and more than three quarters of a century later, it is one of the
stories he tells me.
W.C. Heinz is a writer, and he tells his stories the way Heifitz
fiddled or Hopper painted, or the way Willie Pep boxed--with a
kind of lyrical understatement, with an insistent and inspired
economy. His work has been rediscovered only recently, a happy
by-product of all those end-of-the-millennium anthologies and
sports shows. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam
calls him a pioneer, one of the innovators of what came to be
called New Journalism and the literary godfather to men like Gay
Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford.
Heinz will tell you, chuckling at the pun, that he is "last in
his class," a writer from a long-gone generation of American
greats, the sportswriters of mid-century who come down to us now
every bit as ancient and sepia-washed as the athletes and events
they covered: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy
Cannon, A.J. Liebling and Frank Graham and Paul Gallico and all
those Lardners. Before television, when newspapers and magazines
had a heft and resonance unimaginable today, these were the
master craftsmen of sporting prose. And Bill Heinz, byline W.C.,
was perhaps the purest writer among them, the writer other
writers read. "At his best," Frank Graham said, "he's better than
any of us."
He still has that long, elegant face, determined and earnest when
he comes to the door, smiling now, his glasses set across the
prominent emperor's nose, wide on his face between the pale
blue-green eyes, the feathery white hair combed back off the
broad forehead; the lines drawn there and down from the high
cheeks and at the eyes and up from the corners of his mouth are
as deeply etched as a carving, a medieval woodcut of a man at his
last age. It takes a long time to earn a face like this. The head
is large on his body--he is still fine-boned and slender,
somewhere between a super bantam and a lightweight, maybe 130
pounds in his shoes. He stands 5'8" or 5'9", a bit shorter after
all these years, but unbent by the weight of his age at 85, his
back as straight as a ring post.
We shake hands on the patio by his driveway, and he invites me
in. His hands are huge. "I'm a little cowed by this," I say to
his back, walking inside. "It's awkward interviewing a good
writer. You know all the tricks already."
"I was picking their brains for 50 years, so it's only fair."
"It's like stealing something. Taking people's stories. Sometimes
I feel like a thief."
Without turning, he says, "I know."
Heinz has lived with his wife, Betty, in this modest house in
Dorset, Vt., for 34 years. Betty isn't here yet. A neighbor has
taken her down to Manchester to go shopping; Heinz didn't want to
worry about her too much while we talked. Betty has Alzheimer's,
and she's a handful lately, always walking off or trying to
straighten up the house. They've been married 59 years.
Wilfred Charles Heinz was born on Jan. 11, 1915. Maybe he got the
sports bug from dreaming that Dempsey fight or from the baseball
cards he collected or from the few scrapes he had in the
schoolyard. (He says boxing on the playground taught him to
appreciate the value of a good left hand. He didn't have one.)
When he was 10 years old, he saw Red Grange running right at him
on a movie screen. Heinz was athletic, played hockey through high
school, but he was light and knew he wasn't going to get much
bigger: "I came to realize that I wasn't going to be a Dempsey or
a Ruth when I found out that a punch in the nose hurt and didn't
improve my appearance, and a baseball bounced off my head didn't
clarify my thinking."
But Heinz was a reader too, and there were sets of Tennyson and
Hugo and Balzac in the glass-front cabinet at home, Twain and
Shakespeare and Poe. When he got the Omnibus of Sport, an
anthology edited by Grantland Rice, for Christmas as a
17-year-old in 1932, he realized that sportswriting was
literature of a sort and that a different kind of truth resided
in it and that maybe it was a way into a world he loved.
He graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1937 with a
B.A. in political science. More important to history, he was the
sports editor for the school newspaper. Most important of all,
though, he met Betty there in his freshman year. Elizabeth Bailey
was a junior, cochair of the 1934 winter carnival, and he saw her
for the first time in the lecture hall of the science building.
She was small and athletic, with luminous blue eyes set in a
round face framed by short, light-brown hair. "She was absolutely
beautiful," he says. "I was completely captivated." Bill and
Betty started dating the following autumn.
When Heinz got out of school, a family friend helped him get a
job as a messenger boy for the New York Sun. He earned $15 a
week. In a megalopolis with nine daily papers, the media center
for a nation during the worst depression in its history, hundreds
of young men were scrambling for jobs at the papers, and an
apprenticeship was a test of character. He hung on to become a
copyboy for the same pay. For two years they yelled at him. "Boy?
Boy! Where's that damned boy?"
He was writing now too, banging out short pieces on the black
1932 Remington portable his father had bought him. Frederick had
been a typewriter repairman before he became a salesman, and he
knew a good machine when he saw one. Keats Speed, the excellently
named editor of the Sun, knew a good thing when he saw one too
and gave Heinz a job on the city desk. There he covered a cub
reporter's beat, the fires and the shootings and the school board
meetings. He learned to report, to rewrite, to beat a hard
deadline. He learned to listen to what people really said and how
they said it.
Although he was doing well as an all-purpose reporter at the Sun,
he had the itch to try more complicated forms of writing, and he
wanted to write more about sports. He covered skiing and,
occasionally, basketball at the Sun but was still writing too
often for his taste about pushcart fires and corrupt borough
presidents and roller-coaster trackwalkers. All that would change
with the war.
"Let's eat some lunch."
He butters toast the way another man might perform a ritual tea
ceremony, deliberate and contemplative--something worth doing
right. We take our roast beef sandwiches on white toast out to
the dining room. He points to my notebook and tape recorder and
says gently, "Why don't you put those away for a while?"
We talk for a long time about writing, about the panic that
creeps over you when you're sitting in the chair and nothing
comes. About trying to find some music in the words and about the
moment, when it's going well, that you look down at the page and
the story comes to you in full, everyone and everything alive in
your head and busy on the page, and when you look up again, eight
hours are gone and you feel like Lindbergh landing in Paris.
Heinz became the Sun's junior war correspondent in the fall of
1943. He spent a month and a half on the U.S.S. Core, an escort
carrier on antisubmarine duty in the Atlantic. Seated now on the
floor of his den, we go slowly through his many 11-by-14
scrapbooks. Pasted into one of the first are the transit chits
and laundry tickets and clippings from his time aboard the Core.
There are photos of Heinz on the flight deck in his Mae West,
getting ready for a fly-along in a Grumman Avenger. Heinz in his
wire-rim glasses, a sparse beginner's mustache on his upper lip,
jaunty in his plain khaki uniform with the black and gold
The next scrapbook, though, chronicles what Heinz saw and what he
did and what he wrote as he followed the ground war through
Europe. It has a bad weight to it.
In April 1944 he packed that Remington portable and shipped out
for London to cover the Allied invasion. The writer people talk
about when they talk about W.C. Heinz was born during the Allied
push across Europe. Everything he wrote after 1944 was informed
by what he experienced as the fighting moved east toward Germany.
Everything he came to understand about courage and cowardice and
truth can be found, like seedlings, in his combat dispatches. He
learned that men at war fight not for causes but for one another
and that heroism is a kind of love. He learned to strip the
artifice from his work. His style emerged, a refined transparency
in which the I largely disappeared, and what the reader got was
Heinz is fond of saying that, for a young writer, the war was
great training: "It was so dramatic, you couldn't write it
badly." But plenty of writers did. Some covered the war from a
briefing room at Army headquarters or, worse yet, filed thirdhand
dispatches from behind a highball glass in hotel bars in Paris or
Cherbourg. Heinz got as close to the fighting as the brass and
good sense would let him. When the Sun's senior correspondent was
captured by the Nazis, Heinz replaced him.
Much of what he saw he couldn't write about; none of them could.
It would never have made it past the censors. The infernal stink
of infection and cordite and fear, the bodies of American
teenagers sunk in the muddy roads beneath the weight of the tank
tracks, the waste and the cruelty and the panic and the
ineptitude. By September 1944 Heinz was on the verge of a nervous
collapse, but he hung on through the fall and the winter, the
Battle of the Bulge and the last push to Berlin. He came home in
June, not long after V-E Day.
In the few pictures of Heinz in this dark scrapbook, from '44 and
'45, he seems exhausted and cheerless, far older in the eyes than
29. There are the dispatches and cablegrams he sent back to New
York, filed from Spa or Remagen or deep behind German lines.
There are some of the little ends and bits he collected too, the
Army manuals and business cards and train tickets. But maybe the
one thing most revealing about W.C. Heinz, the writer and the
man, is folded into the back of the scrapbook; a magazine piece
about the war on which he's made a correction in the final
paragraph: "After that there was just the muffled sound of the
shelling, the sounds of the men breathing heavily and turning in
their sleep, and the sound of the straw."
Between the words "the" and "sound" in the last clause he had,
who knows how many years later, drawn a caret in soft lead pencil
and inserted the word "taffeta." The taffeta sound of the straw.
Even when it's done, it's never finished.
When Heinz got back to New York, the Sun gave him three months
off and a $1,000 bonus. He asked to be moved over to sports, but
the paper wanted him to go to the Washington bureau in the fall.
His first morning back in the office, Keats Speed moved him to
sports. To this day Heinz isn't sure why.
When Heinz's battered black Remington was shipped back from the
war, the copyboy at the Sun who checked it in was a kid named
David Anderson. He held it in his hands for a while before he put
it up on the stockroom shelf. "I was in awe of him," says
Anderson. "We all were." Anderson is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning
sports columnist for The New York Times.
Indeed, by the end of the war Heinz's writing had earned him a
wide following, especially among those who plied the same trade.
When asked in 1946 by an editor from Hearst to recommend someone
for a potential magazine article, Damon Runyon, silenced by
throat cancer, wrote on a cocktail napkin, "W.C. Heinz very
good." He underlined "very good" three times.
By the late '40s Frank Graham, the little giant of New York
sportswriters, had mastered what was sometimes referred to as the
"conversation piece," a fly-on-the-wall approach using long
blocks of dialogue without writerly asides. Heinz took the device
and refined it until, as he now puts it, "imitation and
adaptation and conversion" had him walking comfortably in shoes
of his own.
You don't see conversation pieces much anymore, those unbroken
skeins of polished, colorful dialogue. One reason is that they
weren't always word-for-word accurate. Graham worked without a
notebook--what he reproduced so beautifully was what the people he
was quoting wanted to say, and he said it in their voices. Heinz
took notes but knew that the secret of this novelistic technique
was to get the sound right. "Quoting like that is walking on thin
ice," he tells me, sorcerer to apprentice. "You go gently so you
don't break through."
By 1948 Heinz had earned the luxury and burden of his own column
in the Sun, "The Sport Scene." In the picture next to it he looks
urbane and sagacious, wearing a bow tie and an enigmatic half
smile. He wrote about polo, about football, about hockey and
basketball and baseball. He wrote about the six-day bicycle races
at the 168th Street Armory. Mostly, though, he wrote about
Betty and Bill had their first child, Barbara, in 1947 and had
moved from Manhattan up to Old Greenwich, Conn., but Heinz spent
his working days at places like Stillman's Gym at 919 Eighth
Avenue, the alpha and omega of boxing in those days. It was a
converted loft on the second floor that stunk of sweat and
wintergreen, ambition and corruption. Everyone in the world of
boxing came up those stairs at one time or another, and there was
always a story to be found. By then, in addition to his
five-day-a-week column, Heinz was writing magazine articles and
fiction, and he had sold a handful of fine short stories.
He has two large scrapbooks full of his columns. Each has been
neatly scissored from the newspaper and glued side by side, two
per page. What is remarkable about them 50 years later is that
none of them are bad. He wrote five of these things a week, 700
words a day, on deadline, for more than two years, and there
isn't a clunker in the bunch. Some are better than others,
certainly, but each is thoughtful and well-turned and tells a
story. At the bottom of some of these yellowing clips, Heinz has
become his own harshest critic and modestly written "good" on
about every 14th column.
The postwar years were a boom time in New York sportswriting, and
Heinz worked and socialized with the other famous names of his
trade. He'd see A.J. Liebling, fat and round and pale as a
snowman, making notes for a New Yorker piece at Stillman's in the
afternoon; maybe give wisecracking Jimmy Cannon a lift to the
Poughkeepsie regatta in his tiny Crosley. Seated shoulder to
shoulder on the way there, Cannon deadpanned a look of genuine
curiosity on his wide Irish mug. "Where's the other one?" Cannon
asked, referring to his friend's subminiature automobile.
"The other what?" answered Heinz.
Cannon, milking it, looked around as though searching for
something lost. "The other roller skate."
"Shhhh. Don't talk to me right now.... I'm trying to read this
Some nights Heinz made it home in time for dinner with his best
friend, Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith.
In the photos they wear camel-hair coats over their boxy
double-breasted suits and striped suspenders and slender silk
neckties, these kings of the city, these sportswriters, and fine,
brushed fedoras and shoes polished brighter than the bar rails
they were propped on. In those long, red banquettes at Toots
Shor's or around a table at Dempsey's or ringside at Stillman's,
their hats off and their sleeves rolled up, their elbows and
their notebooks on that damp canvas, or in the swaying club car
choked with cigarette smoke on the sleeper to Chicago to cover
the second Tony Zale-Rocky Graziano bout, they were always
together, working, talking, cracking wise.
The newspaper business was changing after the war. Undermined by
television and declining circulation, the Sun was one of the
first papers to fold in what would become a decades-long series
of desperate press mergers and foreclosures. It disappeared from
newsstands on Jan. 3, 1950. Heinz got the news from a friend as
he walked through Grand Central Terminal. He was offered star
columns in other papers, but he wanted to do longer pieces. No
more would he say to Betty on New Year's Eve, "Well, I have to
write 250 columns again before this time next year."
In 1951 the Heinzes had a second daughter, Gayl. Heinz was
piecing together the kind of freelance income that most writers
only dream of. Over the next few years he did some of his best
work, including Brownsville Bum for True magazine. Most recently
collected in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century
(with two other Heinz pieces), it is the profile of Al (Bummy)
Davis, a gifted, dirty fighter and chronic screwup who dies a
hero. Its effect on other writers is legendary; the story is told
and retold about the night in Manhattan when Jimmy Breslin
shouted over a bar to his wife, Rosemary, "What's the best sports
magazine piece of all time?" and she bellowed back immediately,
"Bummy Davis by Bill Heinz."
Throughout the '50s Heinz wrote for Collier's and Cosmopolitan,
The Saturday Evening Post and Sport, for Argosy and True and
Esquire and Look. He kept an office out in the converted garage
after they moved to Stamford from Old Greenwich and wrote each
day when he wasn't on the road reporting or doing research. He
profiled every boxer from Carmen Basilio to Hurricane Jackson to
Roy Harris, the Backwoods Battler from the Big Thicket. He wrote
about Rocky Marciano and Ingemar Johansson, about Joe Louis and
Archie Moore and Beau Jack and Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray
Robinson and Ezzard Charles.
In boxing he found the purest form of competition. He often
compared it to painting or composing, an application of
scientific principle to produce a work of art, and has said that
when he watched Willie Pep fight--the best boxer he ever saw--he
could almost hear the music. Prizefighting has always attracted a
colorful crowd, too, which gives a writer great raw material. A
sport full of gutter-poor kids bootstrapping their way up off the
street, it appealed to Heinz as the proto-American success story.
Nineteen fifty-eight was probably the best year Heinz had as a
writer. He published a much-anthologized article about Pete
Reiser, the hard-luck Brooklyn Dodgers phenom who played with
such exuberant abandon that he spent most of his injury-shortened
career hobbled after running hell-bent into too many outfield
Nineteen fifty-eight was also the year in which Heinz's first
novel, The Professional, was published. He had earned enough from
a two-part Eddie Arcaro profile in 1956 to take 11 months off to
write a book he'd been taking notes on for years. He wrote
through all of 1957. "It was like going from four-rounders to a
15-round title fight," he says.
It is the story of Eddie Brown, a middleweight contender, and his
manager, Doc Carroll, told by a sportswriter named Frank Hughes.
Brown is based on Billy Graham, a popular middleweight in the
'40s and '50s with admirable skills and a missionary's work
ethic, of whom Liebling said, "He's as good as a fighter can be
without being a helluva fighter." Doc Carroll is drawn from Jack
Hurley, boxing's last angry man, an on-the-level manager of the
scrupulous old school. "There are two honest managers in boxing,"
said Damon Runyon. "One is Jack Hurley, and I can't remember the
name of the other." The writer Frank Hughes is an alter ego for
Heinz, who speaks to our fascination with prizefighting.
The book was generally well reviewed. It has everything Heinz
knew and loved about boxing and everything he hated about the
ascendancy of mendacity and mediocrity that was killing it. The
novel is constructed in the manner of all Heinz's best work, in a
series of interlocking, overlapping copy blocks that, once
finished, become seamless and whole. "It's like building a stone
wall without mortar," he tells me in the den. "You place the
words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them
until they're balanced and solid."
Hemingway cabled congratulations from Cuba and called The
Professional the "only good novel I've ever read about a fighter
and an excellent first novel in its own right." Elmore Leonard
sent Heinz a fan letter, "the only letter I've ever written to
another writer," praising the book's honesty and clarity. Even
Liebling wrote a note: "All praise in varying degrees from high
to extra high."
All this is in the scrapbooks along with Heinz's original notes
for the novel, sheets from a dime-store pocket notebook covered
in his neat cursive, the blue ink long since faded to gray.
At the other end of this quiet house we hear the front door open
and slowly close.
"Come meet Betty."
Heinz and I unfold ourselves from the floor and go out to the
living room. Betty's eyes are as blue and clear and deep as a
movie star's pool, but the Alzheimer's has robbed her of most
conversation and thus stolen from Bill as well. She'll sit in the
chair by the window and look out across the valley to Bromley
Mountain for hours, smiling, while he reads the paper, but her
health is declining by the week. Bill's been unwell lately, too,
and he nearly died in 1998 following a series of operations that
cost him his left eye. Each of them takes a fistful of
prescription drugs every day for an arm-long list of ailments.
Bill gets Betty settled into her chair by the big window. "We'll
be in the office, Mom," he says, and leads me back down the hall
to the other end of the house. In the office are shelves of the
books he's written. On the wall he has an autographed copy of his
friend Joe Rosenthal's famous photograph of the flag-raising at
Iwo Jima. There's a painting of Stillman's Gym by combat artist
John Groth. Beside the desk is a small statue of two boxers, one
putting out a left jab, the other slipping it. On the desk is the
same Remington portable he's used his entire working life.
After The Professional, Heinz continued to write magazine
features, including profiles of quarterback Charlie Conerly and
Paul Hornung and Stan Musial and bonus baby Joe Namath. He lived
about two miles from Red Smith in Stamford, and the two families
were close. ("He was the Willie Pep of the profession," Heinz
says, "all solid skill and inventiveness.") There were lots of
cocktail parties back and forth, the grownups dancing and the
children watching from the top of the stairs, lots of dinners.
Heinz was skating on a backyard pond with Smith's son, Terry,
during Christmas break in 1961 when Smith called to offer Heinz a
book deal. Smith wanted him to cowrite a book with Vince Lombardi
as part of a new series he was editing, a book that would take
readers inside pro football. Heinz was already at work on a book,
one that had grown out of his fascination with medicine. He had
written a piece that year for LIFE magazine on J. Maxwell
Chamberlain, a thoracic surgeon. He had watched three-dozen
surgeries at Chamberlain's elbow and thought there was a novel in
what he had seen. Heinz, being Heinz, wrote both.
The Lombardi book, which became Run to Daylight!, tested Heinz's
patience as much as his skill. Lombardi was no storyteller and
had a terrible memory for any kind of detail that wasn't an X or
an O, so Heinz found himself filling his small Woolworth's
notebooks with background from Marie, Lombardi's wife. He lived
in their guest room for two weeks before the 1962 training camp,
interviewing the coach every morning in his basement rec room to
get the boilerplate epigrams about winning and losing and then
talking to Marie in the afternoons for the color stuff, the
psychology and personal history, while Vince played hurry-up,
full-contact golf with Green Bay luminaries like Don Hutson and
the local Pontiac dealer.
Heinz roomed with Lombardi through camp and preseason, a constant
presence players dubbed "the shadow," those pale eyes behind the
thick black glasses he wore then taking in everything while he
filled those notebooks and Lombardi's office ashtrays. Over time
they became guarded friends. Heinz has a sly sense of humor and
to this day enjoys letting some air out of the pompous. Lombardi
was, at times, as self-inflating as an expensive life raft.
During the cocktail hour one night down in that rec room,
Lombardi, in front of a large group of family and friends,
barked, "Bill Heinz, wait'll you hear this! I got a letter the
other day, and the only thing on the envelope was my picture and
a stamp. But it came right here!"
Heinz didn't say anything. Bellows-chested and puffed full of
himself, Lombardi needed an answer, an acknowledgment. "You're
Heinz paused. The room went quiet, just the sound of the ice in
the glasses, everybody waiting for it.
"Coach," he said, "I'd be more impressed if your picture was on
The Surgeon and Run to Daylight! were published in 1963. The
former was a successful novel and sold well; the latter was a
triumph and sold like no sports book before it. In it Heinz
subsumed his own voice and gave the reader pure Lombardi. It
chronicled a week inside Lombardi's head as he readied the
Packers to play the Detroit Lions.
The book went through 15 printings and was the first gospel,
mythological and bronze-bound, of the legendary Lombardi. Heinz
wrote an award-winning television adaptation of the Lombardi book
(produced by his friend Howard Cosell), and by the end of 1963,
at the top of his profession, he had the time and the money and
the ease of mind, at 48, to consider carefully what he might do
Barbara Heinz, age 16, died on Feb. 27, 1964. It is quiet torture
for him to tell this story, and he tells it carefully, as though
these words were made of glass and might shatter in the telling.
Might cut him.
On Feb. 25, the day of the first Clay-Liston fight, in Miami,
Barbara told Betty she didn't feel well. She had a persistent
fever, she couldn't eat, and she had a headache. Heinz had
already left to cover the fight. Betty took Barbara to the
doctor, who booked her into Stamford Hospital. On the way there,
they dropped off Gayl, 13, who was going on a ski trip. A few
minutes later, Barbara turned to Betty in the front seat of the
car and said, "I'm going to die, Mom."
That night Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight
championship. Heinz flew back to Manhattan a few hours after the
fight to write a newsreel wrap-up that would play in movie
theaters the next day. Betty called him early on the 27th, and
told him to get to the hospital. All of Barbara's major organs
were shutting down.
He arrived there at 11 a.m. At 7 p.m., Barbara died. Heinz
remembers Betty standing in the hospital lobby saying, "She's
gone." He remembers how tightly they held each other. Toxic shock
or some virulent strep, they still don't know what it was. He can
never forget "taking home Barbie's empty clothes" and being
stricken for the next few days, in and out of a state like a
horrible, waking sleep.
Forgoing a service, Bill and Betty took Barbara's ashes up to
Vermont, where she'd been so happy the summer before at camp in
Dorset Hollow, where she'd fallen in love for the first time.
They spread the ashes beneath a tree, and Heinz, eyes shut tight
against something he still can't stand to look at, tells me they
"started on the road back, which never ends."
Bill and Betty lived apart for a time after that--they couldn't
look at each other without crying. Each thought the other was
thinking that they could have or should have done something more,
anything, done the impossible somehow. Heinz returned to 919
Eighth Avenue, the old address where he'd spent so much time,
Stillman's Gym. They'd torn it down and put up an apartment
He and Betty hung on, though, and in 1966 they bought the
mountainside house in Dorset, reknit what they could of their
hearts and started over.
It is getting dark, and snow is falling outside. Heinz is tired.
He brought sportswriting across the century from Granny Rice and
Ring Lardner and passed it like a gift to the writers we read
today. Perhaps he'd have become as famous as Red Smith if he'd
stayed in one place. He had bad luck with newspapers and
magazines. The Sun and The Saturday Evening Post, True and
Argosy, Collier's and Look have all gone under, and they pulled
the memories down after them.
Heinz kept working, more pieces for the magazines, including
Great Day at Trickem Fork, a breakthrough Saturday Evening Post
piece on the Selma peace marches, and another successful book,
M*A*S*H, which he cowrote in 1968 with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger
under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. In 1974 there was another
novel, Emergency, an episodic account of life in a city trauma
unit. He updated and collected his earlier work in Once They
Heard the Cheers in 1979 and in American Mirror in 1982. Last
year he coedited the Sports Illustrated Classics Book of Boxing,
typing the foreword and introduction on that ancient Remington.
Gayl, who's 49, lives down in Boxford, Mass., with her husband
and their daughter.
As I say good night, Bill's helping Betty out of that chair by
the window. "You ready for dinner, Mom?" are the last words I
What Bill Heinz knows and what Bill Heinz wrote is that life is
the biggest fix of them all, and every one of us was bought the
day we were born. Maybe you can pick the round you go down, or
hold out for more money, or book yourself into the main event in
a bigger room. But for all the training and the roadwork, for all
the hours and weeks and years spent in patient, useless practice,
for all the effort and hunger of it, the brutality and the
sweetness of it too, the battering and the circling and the
moments of perfect, silent pain or crazy, transcendent peace, on
your feet or on your knees or on your ass, you know how this
fight is going to end.
What Bill Heinz knows and what Bill Heinz wrote is that the
dignity, the nobility of it all, lies in the fighting itself and
in taking the thing as deep into the late rounds as you can. Bill
and I talk about that fight on the phone these days, checking up
on each other. A few weeks ago, dizzy, he fell and cracked his
head on the mantel. Gashed like he'd been butted in a clinch. I
ask if he's O.K.
"Oh sure," he says, "just another writer still beating his head
against the wall."
There were 39,827 people there and they had paid $342,497 to be
there and when Graziano's head came up out of the dugout they
rose and made their sound. The place was filled with it and it
came from far off and then he was moving quickly down beneath
this ceiling of sound, between the two long walls of faces,
turned toward him and yellow in the artificial light and shouting
things, mouths open, eyes wide, into the ring where, in one of
the most brutal fights ever seen in New York, Zale dropped him
once and he dropped Zale once before, in the sixth round, Zale
suddenly, with a right to the body and left to the head, knocked
--THE DAY OF THE FIGHT, 1947
They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and
they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman
had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with
the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on
the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still
and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the
handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt
toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight
out, the free legs quivering.
"Aw ----" someone said.
That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets
removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company,
the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain
pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the
cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of
bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter
after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full
brother of Assault.
--DEATH OF A RACEHORSE, 1949
When they came to the corner they stopped for just a moment under
the streetlight. Then they turned left and started walking again.
"Who said being a fighter's wife is easy?" Lucille said.
"It's like being in the ring," Norma said.
"She fights right in the ring with him every fight," her mother
said, talking to Lucille.
"That's the trouble," Norma said. "You can't get in the ring
"What could you do?" her mother said.
"Well," she said, "if they put Fusari's wife in the ring."
"He just said Fusari's in trouble," Lucille said quickly.
"You heard it?" Norma said.
"I don't know," Norma said. "It's too much."
"That's the funny thing," Lucille said. "Everybody seems to wait
for tonight but you."
"I wait for the night after tonight."
--THE FIGHTER'S WIFE, 1949
"I think," one of them said, "that the worst writing that
appears on the sports pages is done during the football season."
"No," Harry said. "Don't forget the baseball training camps."
"You win," the other said.
"As for myself," Harry said, "I will read an account of a
football game until I come to the word 'out-statisticked.' Then
"Well," somebody else said, "sports have contributed new words
to the English language."
"Like 'decisioned'?" Harry said.
"I can give you another," another said. "Once we had a hockey
story and the man writing it was trying to say that the Stanley
Cup is emblematic or symbolic or something of the hockey
championship. So he used the word 'emblastic.' I like that."
"I like it, too."
--THE SUN, 1949
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 for it.
--BROWNSVILLE BUM, 1951
In 1946, the Dodgers played an exhibition game in Springfield,
Missouri. When the players got off the train there was a young
radio announcer there, and he was grabbing them one at a time and
asking them where they thought they'd finish that year.
"In first place," Reese and Casey and Dixie Walker and the rest
were saying. "On top." "We'll win it."
"And here comes Pistol Pete Reiser!" the announcer said. "Where
do you think you'll finish this season, Pete?"
"In Peck Memorial Hospital," Pete said.
--THE ROCKY ROAD OF PISTOL PETE, 1958
"[It's] the basic law of man. The truth of life. It's a fight,
man against man, and if you're going to defeat another man,
defeat him completely. Don't starve him to death, like they try
to do in the fine, clean competitive world of commerce. Leave
him lying there, senseless, on the floor."
"I guess that's it," [Eddie said.] "I don't know."
--THE PROFESSIONAL, 1958
I have been asleep for three hours and, suddenly, I am awake. I
am wide awake, and that's the trouble with this game. Just twelve
hours ago I walked off that field, and we had beaten the Bears 49
to 0. Now I should be sleeping the satisfied sleep of the
contented but I am lying here awake, wide awake, seeing myself
walking across that field, seeing myself searching in the crowd
for George Halas but really hoping that I would not find him.
All week long there builds up inside of you a competitive
animosity toward that other man, that counterpart across the
field. All week long he is the symbol, the epitome, of what you
must defeat and then, when it is over, when you have looked up to
that man for as long as I have looked up to George Halas, you
cannot help but be disturbed by a score like this. You know he
brought a team in here hurt by key injuries and that this was
just one of those days, but you can't apologize. You can't
apologize for a score. It is up there on that board and nothing
can change it now.
--RUN TO DAYLIGHT!, 1963