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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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Maybe this is how it begins. � The boy, eight years old, is asleep in his room, curled fast into the pillow, breathing softly. He looks fragile and small beneath the bedclothes, fine-boned, with a long, elegant face that seems determined and earnest even at rest. In the kitchen his mother has washed and dried and put away the dinner dishes. Standing at the sink in her patterned apron, a damp dish towel over one shoulder, she scours the last few imperfections from the white enamel roasting pan. Through the swinging door she can hear the men in the dining room fussing with the radio. � It is a crystal set, a homemade job, bright copper coil and wires and vacuum tubes, as complicated and fickle as a human heart. The boy's father, a salesman, built it himself. With the headphones placed in the cut-glass fruit bowl at the center of the dining-room table to amplify the sound, the family can draw close, lean in over that dark polished wood and listen. Some nights they can hear KDKA all the way from Pittsburgh, the radio signal booming out of the sky across Pennsylvania, crashing over the Alleghenies and down into this trim little house in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Tonight the signal is weak, and the ghostly voices coming from the Polo Grounds, from just a few miles south in New York City, seem distant, interplanetary. The salesman and the bank clerk from around the corner and Schlosser, the German butcher from next door, will have to take turns with the awkward Bakelite headphones, describing to each other what they can hear from beneath that sea of static. It is Sept. 14, 1923, and tonight Dempsey, the lethal Dempsey, is fighting Luis Firpo for the heavyweight championship of the world.

The butcher sits wearing the headset for the opening bell, knitting his thick fingers as he carefully intones the announcer's call to his friends, but within seconds he is on his feet, red-faced and sputtering, repeating again and again that "Vurpo ist down! Vurpo ist down!" until, without sense or segue, eyes wide, he shouts, "Tempsey ist down now too! Out of de ring and down!" The boy's father grabs the headset from the butcher, trying to make sense of what's happening. It's the wildest round in heavyweight history! Impossible but true! Firpo's been down seven times in the first, Dempsey twice, once even tumbling through the ropes. In the second round, with that stadium crowd of 85,000 roaring murder into the night and echoing in those tiny headphones, Dempsey knocks Firpo cold with a couple of short lefts and a hard, anesthetic right, and it's over.

Upstairs, the boy sleeps on, peaceful. Maybe the fight comes to him through the walls, as if in a dream, a riot of giants. Vurpo ist down! Maybe, thanks to radio and newsreels and the sports pages, the heavyweight championship of the world is in the very air, and he breathes it in by the lungful.

The next morning, at the breakfast table, his father tells him about the apocalyptic Dempsey-Firpo fight, about the broadcast and the static, and about the bright-red face of the tongue-tied German butcher from next door. The boy will remember all this, and more than three quarters of a century later, it is one of the stories he tells me.

W.C. Heinz is a writer, and he tells his stories the way Heifitz fiddled or Hopper painted, or the way Willie Pep boxed—with a kind of lyrical understatement, with an insistent and inspired economy. His work has been rediscovered only recently, a happy by-product of all those end-of-the-millennium anthologies and sports shows. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam calls him a pioneer, one of the innovators of what came to be called New Journalism and the literary godfather to men like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford.

Heinz will tell you, chuckling at the pun, that he is "last in his class," a writer from a long-gone generation of American greats, the sportswriters of mid-century who come down to us now every bit as ancient and sepia-washed as the athletes and events they covered: Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, A.J. Liebling and Frank Graham and Paul Gallico and all those Lardners. Before television, when newspapers and magazines had a heft and resonance unimaginable today, these were the master craftsmen of sporting prose. And Bill Heinz, byline W.C., was perhaps the purest writer among them, the writer other writers read. "At his best," Frank Graham said, "he's better than any of us."

There were 39,827 people there and they had paid $342,497 to be there and when Graziano's head came up out of the dugout they rose and made their sound. The place was filled with it and it came from far off and then he was moving quickly down beneath this ceiling of sound, between the two long walls of faces, turned toward him and yellow in the artificial light and shouting things, mouths open, eyes wide, into the ring where, in one of the most brutal fights ever seen in New York, Zale dropped him once and he dropped Zale once before, in the sixth round, Zale suddenly, with a right to the body and left to the head, knocked him out.

He still has that long, elegant face, determined and earnest when he comes to the door, smiling now, his glasses set across the prominent emperor's nose, wide on his face between the pale blue-green eyes, the feathery white hair combed back off the broad forehead; the lines drawn there and down from the high cheeks and at the eyes and up from the corners of his mouth are as deeply etched as a carving, a medieval woodcut of a man at his last age. It takes a long time to earn a face like this. The head is large on his body—he is still fine-boned and slender, somewhere between a super bantam and a lightweight, maybe 130 pounds in his shoes. He stands 5' 8" or 5' 9", a bit shorter after all these years, but unbent by the weight of his age at 85, his back as straight as a ring post.

We shake hands on the patio by his driveway, and he invites me in. His hands are huge. "I'm a little cowed by this," I say to his back, walking inside. "It's awkward interviewing a good writer. You know all the tricks already."

"I was picking their brains for 50 years, so it's only fair."

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