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Heavyweight Championship of the Word
Jeff MacGregor
September 25, 2000
In an era when America's great sportswriters were as big as the athletes they covered, W.C. Heinz may have been the best of the bunch
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September 25, 2000

Heavyweight Championship Of The Word

In an era when America's great sportswriters were as big as the athletes they covered, W.C. Heinz may have been the best of the bunch

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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 sports-writers, 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 boxing.

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.

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