By Kevin Valkenburg
The Baltimore Sun
July 14, 2008
With sportswriting increasingly dominated by loud opinions and arrogant bluster, it has become easy, in recent years, to overlook the poetry and strength that can exist in writing that is anchored by understatement.
Few, if any, sportswriters who rose to prominence during last century were able to master the art of understatement, and use it as a storytelling device, quite like W.C. Heinz.
Wilfred Charles Heinz – Bill to his family and friends – was a reporter’s reporter, a gifted listener with an ear for dialogue, and in the 1940s and 50s, he was the writer whom other writers read, often in awe.
Using the keys of his 1932 Remington typewriter, W.C. Heinz told the kind of stories in books, magazines and the pages of the New York Sun that spoke larger truths about the way we live, the way we work and the way we play.
“At his best,” sportswriter Frank Graham once said of Heinz, “he is better than any of us.”
And so it is with great respect that the Associated Press Sports Editors honors Heinz, posthumously, with the 2008 Red Smith Award, given each year in recognition of someone who has made an outstanding contribution to newspapers and to sportswriting.
Heinz becomes the third straight posthumous winner of the Red Smith Award the fourth in the last five years.
Even if you have not read Heinz’s work, most likely you have read stories that were shaped by writers who felt his influence. David Halberstam, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, called Heinz a pioneer, one of the innovators of what came to be known as New Journalism, and considered Heinz the literary godfather to writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Frank Deford.
“W.C. Heinz was the Prometheus of modern American sportswriting,” wrote Jeff MacGregor, who profiled Heinz in Sports Illustrated in 2000, and in the years that followed, grew to view Heinz as both a mentor and friend. “There is sportswriting before Heinz, and there is sportswriting after Heinz. He is the bridge between the ancients and the Jet Age. He gets us from Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen to Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson. The light he brought to us all, to those of us who read and write about sports, was the twofold fire of realism and literary merit.”
Though he never quite achieved the widespread fame awarded to some of his contemporaries like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and A.J. Liebling, in part because the New York Sun folded in 1950, the role Heinz had in shaping modern sportswriting is undeniable.
“Bill Heinz inspired us all with the crystal clarity of his work,” says Dave Kindred, the 1991 Red Smith winner. “Better yet, he showed us that excellence can co-exist with humility and generosity.”
Although Heinz died in February at age 93, and Smith died in 1982, we can reasonably surmise, in good conscience, that both men would have been pleased with the selection. Heinz and Smith were not only contemporaries during their illustrious careers, they were also very close friends. Best friends, some might say.
Heinz’s journalism career deserves recognition not only for its brilliance – he is the only writer to have three pieces anthologized in the Best American Sports Writing of the Century – but also for its versatility. Heinz began his work in newspapers as a messenger boy at the New York Sun in 1937, earning $15 a week.
In time, he became an accomplished general assignment reporter, and in 1943, when he was in his late 20s, the Sun made him the paper’s junior war correspondent and shipped him off to Europe. His narrative tales – which he reported from as close to the front lines as the Army would allow – earned him a wide following.
Heinz’s first love, though, was sportswriting, and when he returned from overseas, the Sun granted his wish to move into the sports department. By 1948, he was writing a column five days a week, churning out tiny, but brilliant, 700 word narratives, 250 times a year.
One of those, a 1949 column titled, “Death of a Racehorse” is considered by many to be the greatest piece of deadline sportswriting ever put to the page. In Heinz’s obituary, MacGregor called it the “Gettysburg Address of sportswriting.”
Constructed like a short poem and featuring the rhythms and meter usually found in classical music, “Death of a Racehorse” is a clinic in how to write quiet, understated, yet powerful sentences.
Esquire senior writer Chris Jones, a National Magazine Award winner who began the public campaign for Heinz to receive the Red Smith Award in 2006 by circulating an Internet petition, has said often that he cannot, to this day, read “Death of a Racehorse” without tearing up.
“Heinz’s gift was his restraint,” Jones says. “Most writers don’t know how to stop themselves – they can’t help running over the cliff. But what Heinz showed – what he taught writers who were willing to listen and learn – was that words and sentences and paragraphs that aren’t even there can carry so much weight. His writing was famously clean and economical, and it was beautiful for it, but more important was the writing that he didn’t do, or at least the writing that he didn’t let us see.”
Heinz yearned to write longer pieces, and so when the New York Sun folded in 1950, he focused mostly on his magazine career, constructing the classic profiles “Brownsville Bum” and “The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete” for True magazine. Both of which were selected by Halberstam and Glenn Stout to be included in the Best American Sports Writing of the Century.
In 1958, Heinz published his first novel, “The Professional,” which was about a boxer and his manager, told through the eyes of a sportswriter. No less of an authority than Ernest Hemingway called it “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.”
Heinz’s 1963 book titled “Run to Daylight!” which chronicled a week in the life of the Green Bay Packers iconic coach Vince Lombardi, went through 15 different printings and became of the biggest selling sports book of its time.
Still it was something that Heinz told MacGregor about his first book, “The Professional” which should live on as a lesson to writers, young and old, as they struggle to find their own voice when they write.
“It’s like building a stone wall without mortar,” Heinz said. “You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”