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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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"I wait for the night after tonight."
—THE FIGHTER'S WIFE, 1949

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."

"Relax, Jimmy."

"Shhhh. Don't talk to me right now.... I'm trying to read this guy's hubcaps."

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.

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