"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."