"At his best, he's better than any of us."
I SUSPECT Bill Heinz winced when the celebrated sportswriter Frank Graham first said that about him 60 years ago. Bill's modesty notwithstanding, it remains true.
W.C. Heinz may have been the best pure sportswriter who ever lived. I had the privilege of writing a long profile of Bill for this magazine in September 2000. (It's online at SI.com/heinz.) After which we became and remained friends. As precise as he was generous, he mentored me—as he did every younger writer who came to him—and was a stern advocate for simplicity and understatement. For an authentic, straightforward voice. He wanted all of us who did this work to bear those truths forward. So for what I'm about to write, he'd scold me. Too big, he'd say. Don't go overboard.
W.C. Heinz was the Prometheus of modern American sportswriting. There is sportswriting before Heinz, and there is sportswriting after Heinz. He is the bridge between the ancients and the Jet Age. He gets us from Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen to Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson. The light he brought to us all, to those of us who read and write about sports, was the twofold fire of realism and literary merit.
Without Heinz there might never have been a Halberstam, a Talese, a Jenkins or a Deford, because Heinz led the way out of the old, bloated poesy, out of the thicket of statistics and labored wisecracks, into a starker landscape of common humanity, of life's gifts and miseries. Young sportswriters of whom you've never heard—and who have never heard of Heinz—owe him an abiding debt for this. His importance to the form cannot be overstated.
In his acclaimed boxing novel, The Professional, in Run to Daylight! with Vince Lombardi, in M*A*S*H (which he cowrote), and in scores of magazine pieces and hundreds of newspaper columns and stories, Heinz's graceful line is deceptively simple. Like Hemingway's or Carver's, it is defined by what it leaves out. By its rhythm. By its unerring ear for American speech. It invites imitation, yet defies it.
His 1949 column from the New York Sun, "Death of a Racehorse," is the Gettysburg Address of sportswriting. A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it:
There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.
"Aw ----," someone said.
That was all they said.