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C. Heinz wore many hats as a writer: he was a war correspondent, a medical reporter, a novelist, and, most notably, a sportswriter, where his writing on boxing earned him a place in sports-writing history. He was also an early proponent of the New Journalism, plumbing the depths of his own experience in order to capture the essence of his subjects.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Finding a Voice Through Journalism
Wilfred Charles “Bill” Heinz was born on January 11, 1915, in Mount Vernon, New York, his parents’ only child. He studied political science at Middlebury College in Vermont while serving as sports editor of the college’s paper and yearbook. He graduated in 1937 and the same year landed a job as a messenger boy at the New York Sun. Having advanced to copyboy within two years, Heinz impressed Keats Speed, the city editor, by writing a piece on cleaning women who trudged to work in Manhattan in the early mornings from Mount Vernon and the Bronx. As a result, he was placed on staff as a city reporter. Within another two years he was married to Elizabeth B. Bailey; they eventually had two daughters.
As a city reporter, rewrite man, and feature writer, Heinz reported on various New York stories until the fall of 1943, when he answered the call of duty in World War II and became a Sun war correspondent. He spent seven weeks aboard a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean on patrol for submarines, and then a month in Brazilian waters with the Fourth Fleet. In April 1944, he arrived in London to report on Allied preparations for the invasion of Normandy, and at the end of May he departed on his D-Day assignment aboard the battleship USS Nevada, covering the bombardment of Normandy in support of Allied troop landings. In August, when the Germans captured the Sun’s chief European war correspondent, Heinz replaced him and remained with the First Army through the final days of the war in Europe.
Heinz has said that it was his World War II experiences that taught him to write. In a 1961 Newsweek interview he describes the war as ”a patsy for learning writers . . . the perfect foil, the perfect sparring partner. It was so dramatic, you couldn’t write it badly.” His most important piece of wartime reporting—a stark, gripping account of the execution of three captured German spies in U.S. Army uniforms and with an American jeep behind American lines—could not appear for censorship reasons until December 1949, when True magazine published it as ”The Morning They Shot the Spies.”
Finding a Home as a Sportswriter
Shortly after V-E (Victory in Europe) Day Heinz returned to the United States, where the Sun gave him a three-month vacation, a $1,000 bonus, and a promotion. He was then assigned to the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., bureau as a feature writer, focusing, at his own request, on sports. His early days as a sportswriter, chronicled much later in his life in Once They Heard the Cheers (1979), were spent writing features, sketches of athletes in training and teams in preparation, wrap-ups of earlier contests, and general assignments. One of his first sports-writing bylines was an atmospheric piece about things heard and seen as he left Yankee Stadium. Heinz also became a habitue of Still-man’s Gym in Manhattan, then the most famous boxing gymnasium, where he soaked up the language and mystique of the fight.
In 1949 he began his own sports column, ”The Sport Scene,” which appeared five times a week. He wrote about the people in the sports world as well as sporting events as diverse as baseball, boxing, and horse races. He also continued to publish magazine articles, which he had been doing since the early 1940s. Some of his stories, like ”The Fighter’s Wife” (1950), explore the private lives that run parallel to sporting events as well as the games themselves. Thirteen of his freelance magazine pieces from the 1940s through the 1960s were later collected in American Mirror (1982).
Shortly after the demise of the Sun in 1950, Heinz wrote his first piece for Life, a straightforward account of the newspaper’s final day (”Last Day”) that underscored the staff’s professionalism even in the newspaper’s final hours of existence. That summer he wrote a sports column for the New York Daily News, and spent the rest of the 1950s as a freelance writer, contributing articles to many of the day’s major publications, including Collier’s, Look, the Saturday Evening Post, and Esquire.
Expanding into New Forms
Heinz’s main achievement of the 1950s was his novel The Professional (1958). The Professional is the story of middleweight boxing contender Eddie Brown, preparing for his first title fight, as seen through the eyes of sportswriter Frank Hughes, working on a magazine article on the fighter. Widely praised for its authenticity, honest dialogue, and deep understanding of the fight game and its denizens, The Professional served as a vehicle for several of the writer’s essential beliefs about boxing, which he saw as highly scientific, and at the same time as an art form.
In 1963 Heinz brought out Run to Daylight!, an account of a season spent with legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi. Run to Daylight!, which represented a new kind of sports writing, detailed the workings of a coach’s mind and was narrated in first-person from Lombardi’s point of view. It was, according to Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times, perhaps the first among contemporary sports books to reach a larger audience, and it was a critical hit as well, with Esquire columnist George Frazier praising the ”poetry in W. C. Heinz’s prose.”
In the late 1960s Heinz collaborated with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger who, as Richard Hooker, was credited with sole authorship of the 1968 novel M.A.S.H. This fast-paced, episodic account of three surgeons of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War was the basis for the popular 1970 film and the even more popular television series (1972-1983).
Having left fiction behind, Heinz spent several years in the late 1970s revisiting the athletic heroes he most admired. His interviews would form the basis of Once They Heard the Cheers, a then-and-now selection of portraits of individuals he first wrote about in their heydays. Heinz prefaced his portraits with autobiographical recollections of his boyhood, wartime reporting experiences, and tentative start as a sports reporter for the Sun. At the age of eighty-nine he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He died in Bennington, Vermont, on February 27, 2008.
Works in Literary Context
The New Journalism
Beginning in the 1960s, many journalists began experimenting with viewpoints and storytelling techniques deemed unconventional by the mainstream press. Writers of ”New Journalism”—as it would later be labeled—often wrote in the first person, and included their own opinions and experiences in their reporting instead of maintaining an objective tone and viewpoint. Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Truman Capote were early pioneers of the genre. Jack Newfield, writing in Dutton Review in 1970, cited Heinz as one of the few forerunners of the New Journalism to come from the world of sports writing. Heinz’s innovative approach to sports writing—often breaking traditional molds through new approaches in language, structure, and subject—was designed to get to the essence of reality. Heinz never sought to propagate a new genre, however, instead keeping his focus on the humanity of his subjects.
Works in Critical Context
The Professional Contemporary reviewers found much to praise in The Professional. Robert Cromie in Booklist described the novel as ”a strong, expressive story free of stereotypes and melodrama.” An unnamed reviewer for The New Yorker referred to it as ”precise, poignant and absolutely honest . . . its climax, if devastating, is not in the least pitiless.” Herbert Kupferberg, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called Heinz ”a stylist among sports writers,” alluding to Hemingway’s work by praising the ”affection, insight and lyricism one usually finds in novels about bullfighting.” Not all reviews were uniformly positive, however. Although praising the novel’s sincerity and citing several particular scenes, Robert Daley in The New York Times was critical of the use of the noncombatant narrator and found the emotion of the leading character obscure and the driving narrative force lacking. Charles Fenton, writing in the Saturday Review, lauded the author’s skill and perception but ultimately felt the novel’s characterization was too one-sided and that the author was unsuccessful in his ”insistence that a skilled professional athlete is in the last analysis something remarkable among human beings.” One acerbic Time critic found fault with Heinz for using the historical present and for addressing the reader as ”you.” The critic, although noting that Heinz had crafted a ”reasonably effective story” with some ”wonderful examples of tough prose,” concluded, ”The Professional, in short, is a classic example of the Hemingwayward conviction that small words must be used to denote big things,” finding the book lacking in ”the quality of thought.” As for Hemingway himself, he seems to have liked the book: in his introduction to the paperback reprint, George Plimpton cited a 1958 visit to Havana with Hemingway, who praised the book as the only good boxing novel he had ever read. A. J. Liebling, a penetrating boxing observer in his own right, wrote Heinz personally to praise him for The Professional.
- Cosell, Howard. Cosell on Cosell. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973.
- Halberstam, David, ed. The Best American Sportswriting 1991. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
- Daley, Robert. ”Before the Title Go; The Professional By W. C. Heinz.” The New York Times Book Review (January 5, 1958).
- Kupferberg, Herbert. Review of The Professional. New York Herald Tribune Book Review (January 5,1958).
- Liebling, A. J. ”The Scribes of Destiny.” The New Yorker (September 28, 1946).
- Lipsyte, Robert. Review of Run to Daylight! The New York Times Book Review (October 27, 1963).
- Newfield, Jack. ”Journalism: Old, New and Corporate.” Dutton Review 1 (1970).
- ”Out of the Ring.” Newsweek (October 9, 1961).
- Walters, Harry F. and George Hackett. ”Real Hawkeye Pierce.” Newsweek (February 28, 1983).
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