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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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Nineteen fifty-eight was also the year in which Heinz's first novel, The Professional, was published. He had earned enough from a two-part Eddie Arcaro profile in 1956 to take 11 months off to write a book he'd been taking notes on for years. He wrote through all of 1957. "It was like going from four-rounders to a 15-round title fight" he says.

It is the story of Eddie Brown, a middleweight contender, and his manager, Doc Carroll, told by a sportswriter named Frank Hughes. Brown is based on Billy Graham, a popular middleweight in the '40s and '50s with admirable skills and a missionary's work ethic, of whom Liebling said, "He's as good as a fighter can be without being a helluva fighter." Doc Carroll is drawn from Jack Hurley, boxing's last angry man, an on-the-level manager of the scrupulous old school. "There are two honest managers in boxing," said Damon Runyon. "One is Jack Hurley, and I can't remember the name of the other." The writer Frank Hughes is an alter ego for Heinz, who speaks to our fascination with prizefighting.

"[It's] the basic law of man. The truth of life. It's a fight, man against man, and if you're going to defeat another man, defeat him completely. Don't starve him to death, like they try to do in the fine, clean competitive world of commerce. Leave him lying there, senseless, on the floor."

"I guess that's it," [Eddie said.] "I don't know."

The book was generally well reviewed. It has everything Heinz knew and loved about boxing and everything he hated about the ascendancy of mendacity and mediocrity that was killing it. The novel is constructed in the manner of all Heinz's best work, in a series of interlocking, overlapping copy blocks that, once finished, become seamless and whole. "It's like building a stone wall without mortar," he tells me in the den. "You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they're balanced and solid."

Hemingway cabled congratulations from Cuba and called The Professional the "only good novel I've ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right." Elmore Leonard sent Heinz a fan letter, "the only letter I've ever written to another writer," praising the book's honesty and clarity. Even Liebling wrote a note: "All praise in varying degrees from high to extra high."

All this is in the scrapbooks along with Heinz's original notes for the novel, sheets from a dime-store pocket notebook covered in his neat cursive, the blue ink long since faded to gray.

At the other end of this quiet house we hear the front door open and slowly close.

"Come meet Betty."

Heinz and I unfold ourselves from the floor and go out to the living room. Betty's eyes are as blue and clear and deep as a movie star's pool, but the Alzheimer's has robbed her of most conversation and thus stolen from Bill as well. She'll sit in the chair by the window and look out across the valley to Bromley Mountain for hours, smiling, while he reads the paper, but her health is declining by the week. Bill's been unwell lately, too, and he nearly died in 1998 following a series of operations that cost him his left eye. Each of them takes a fistful of prescription drugs every day for an arm-long list of ailments.

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