Heinz, Wilfred Charles ("Bill")
HEINZ, Wilfred Charles ("Bill")
(b. 11 January 1915 in Mount Vernon, New York), sportswriter, sports columnist, reporter, war correspondent, novelist, coauthor with Vince Lombardi of Run to Daylight!, and leading American sportswriter for nearly half a century.
Heinz was the only child of Frederick Louis Sylvester Heinz, a salesman, and Elizabeth Thielke Heinz. Growing up in a New York City suburb, he played childhood sports and followed the exploits of the athletic heroes of the day. Heinz dreamed of a career in sport but possessed only modest athletic talents. He developed a love for reading and literature and would aspire to a journalistic career.
Heinz attended Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, where he was sports editor of the college newspaper and yearbook. After graduating with a B.A. degree in political science in 1937, Heinz landed a job as a messenger boy with the New York Sun. By 1939 he had become a copy boy and had begun to contribute short pieces for the newspaper. Placed on staff as a city reporter, he gradually learned his craft as a reporter, rewrite man, and feature writer. On 18 January 1941, Heinz married Elizabeth Bailey, whom he had met when they were college students. They had two daughters.
During World War II, Heinz became the Sun 's junior war correspondent in 1943. In April 1944 he was sent to London to report on Allied preparations for the invasion of Europe. After covering the naval bombardment of Normandy, Heinz replaced the Sun 's senior war correspondent in August 1944, covering the advance of the First Army across France and Germany through the final days of the war in Europe. In a 1961 interview, Heinz would recall the war years as the time during which he truly learned to write. In his European wartime dispatches, Heinz cut to the essence of the story. In simple, stark, effective language, he conveyed the brutal reality of war—the chaos, devastation, and emotional turmoil, devoid of excess verbiage and artifice.
Heinz returned to New York in June 1945, shortly after V-E Day. He was rewarded with a $1,000 bonus and a three-month vacation. The Sun had assigned him to their Washington bureau, but he wanted to write sports instead. When Heinz returned from vacation that September, he was assigned to the sports department where he would remain until the newspaper published its last edition on 4 January 1950.
Heinz quickly developed as one of the finest sportswriters in the field. He wrote features, general assignments, atmospheric essays, and portraits of athletes and teams preparing for upcoming contests. Although capably covering all sports, he wrote most perceptively and movingly about boxing, baseball, and horse racing. He became a denizen of Manhattan's Stillman's Gym, a Midtown boxing locale that was the focus of the sport's thriving activity in the immediate postwar years. On 10 January 1949 he began his own sports column, "The Sport Scene," which appeared five times weekly. His columns included sketches of sporting personalities, atmospheric pieces often centered around his favorite sporting venues, and conversation pieces in which the writer replicates blocks of conversation with a delicate touch for the subject's voice.
During the 1940s, Heinz began to contribute freelance articles and short stories to some of the leading magazines of the time. For a month in the summer of 1950, he was guest columnist for the New York Daily News. He rejected the offer of a regular column with the News to pursue freelance work. In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Heinz did some of his best magazine writing and would win five E. P. Dutton Awards between 1948 and 1959 for best magazine sports story. He also worked in television sports writing and promotion during this period and would continue to do so in the following decade.
Heinz's growing literary reputation during the 1950s commanded increasingly higher fees for his magazine work. After receiving a substantial sum for a two-part Look magazine profile of jockey Eddie Arcaro in 1956, he worked for eleven months to produce his first book, the novel The Professional (1958). The Professional tells the story of a middleweight boxing contender and his manager, preparing for a title bout, as seen through the eyes of sportswriter Frank Hughes, an alter ego for Heinz. The book was highly praised by reviewers and even lauded by Ernest Hemingway. It encapsulates Heinz's style and credo: careful attention to detail, authentic dialogue, a sensitivity and understanding of fighters and the fight game coupled with pointed criticism of inept dilettantes, crass commercialism, and sensationalism that Heinz saw engulfing much of contemporary society.
In 1961 Heinz compiled and edited The Fireside Book of Boxing, an anthology of boxing pieces. For a time, his literary interests gravitated towards medicine. A 20 January 1961 Life magazine piece on an innovative chest operation led to The Surgeon (1963), a fictional account of eight hours in the working life of a thoracic surgeon. In 1962 Heinz began a collaboration with Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi that would lead to Run to Daylight! (1963). This seminal work, the first of many such books linking author with coach to reveal the inner workings that precede the game, was related through Lombardi's perspective and voice and became a best-seller, widely praised and often imitated.
Several years later, Heinz teamed with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, a Korean War U.S. Army doctor who, as Richard Hooker, produced the seriocomic novel M*A*S*H (1968). The result was a fast-paced, episodic account of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) that was the basis for the 1970 film and the long-running (1972–1983) television series. Heinz's final novel was Emergency! (1974), an account of a county medical center emergency room.
In the 1970s, Heinz revisited some of the sports personalities he had written about years earlier. The result was Once They Heard the Cheers (1979), an effective blend of then and now that incorporated some of the best of his previous work, reconfigured to update the lives of yesterday's heroes. American Mirror (1982) was a collection of thirteen of his best magazine and newspaper pieces with brief updates. Both books were received well critically.
After many years of semi-retirement, living with his wife in Dorset, Vermont, Heinz belatedly was rediscovered by both print and electronic journalism, both for the quality of his writing and the clarity of his insights. In The Best American Sportswriting of the Century (1999), editor David Halberstam selected three Heinz pieces for inclusion. In 1999 Heinz was coeditor with Nathan Ward of The Book of Boxing, a revised and expanded version of the 1961 work. In 2001 a second, expanded anthology of Heinz's work was published (What a Time It Was: The Best of W. C. Heinz on Sports).
Heinz is the final member of the mid-twentieth-century sportswriting coterie that included Red Smith, Frank Graham, and Jimmy Cannon who, through idiosyncratic methods and stylistic breakthroughs, shattered the stereotyped conventions that had encumbered their profession since sport's so-called Golden Age in the 1920s.
Heinz was, and remains, a purist and a traditionalist in the best sense—an introspective writer who displayed a sensitivity for the struggles of athletes and their wives, who viewed sport at its highest level as the purest form of self-expression reflecting the result of science, practice, invention, and adaptation, and who retained an abiding respect for professionalism, physical courage, quiet competence, and the honest workmen who plied their trades both in and out of sport.
There is no full-length biography of Heinz. He provided some biographical material in the introductory chapter of W. C. Heinz, Once They Heard the Cheers (1970). His literary career is analyzed in detail by Edward J. Tassinari, Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century American Sportswriters 171 (1996): 132–144. David Halberstam has been instrumental in reviving interest in Heinz's work. See the introduction in Halberstam, ed., The Best American Sports Writing, 1991 (1991); Halberstam, ed., The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (1999); and Halberstam's foreword in What a Time It Was: The Best of W. C. Heinz on Sports (2001). Heinz was one of many New York City sportswriters whose writing was critiqued by A. J. Liebling in "The Scribes of Destiny," New Yorker 22 (28 Sept. 1946). A brief interview with Heinz is in "Out of the Ring," Newsweek 58 (9 Oct. 1961). His role, together with that of Jimmy Cannon, in the flowering of a more personal sportswriting style is found in Jack Newfield, "Journalism: Old, New and Corporate," Dutton Review 1 (1970): 151–156. The most complete account of his life is Jeff MacGregor, "Heavyweight Champion of the Word," Sports Illustrated 93 (25 Sept. 2000).
Edward J. Tassinari