Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Professional

He was the champ. He was the last great sportswriter, boxing in particularly, from the World War II generation. At age 93, W.C. Heinz, known as “Bill,” died of old age yesterday in an assisted-living facility in Bennington, Vt. As a fellow journalist, the one thing I admire most about Heinz, and the first thing that comes to mind when I hear his name, is that he was the professional. The Professional was also the title of his renowned boxing novel. “THE PROFESSIONAL is the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read and an excellent novel in its own right,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in a cabled message from Cuba. Heinz’s short, concise prose along with his scrupulous attention to the way each person spoke was very much like that of Hemingway. “My philosophy of professionalism is that if there is a leak in the basement and you are a plumber and you are called in the middle of the night, then you go there and handle that leak and weld that joint or whatever you have to do,” Heinz once said. “And if you’re soaking wet, then you go home and you clean your clothes, and you can sleep knowing that you did what you had to do. If everybody behaved this way, it would be a far better world.”

Heinz practiced what he preached. “Everything he did, he did meticulously,” said Heinz’s daughter Gayl Bailey Heinz to the Bennington Banner, adding that he almost never rewrote his own work, trying to make it perfect on the first draft. “If it was building a rabbit hutch for a pet, every piece of wood was cut exactly, every corner matched, everything was measured to the 16th of an inch. He wanted things done right, and that’s the way he wrote....”

While his body began failing him in the final rounds of his life, his mind remained sharp. I called him on the phone about two years ago asking if I could visit him. (I had called him a few years earlier, but the timing just wasn’t right.) Heinz said he was too weak to meet with anyone because of a second stroke he had suffered a few months earlier. I forgot his exact words, but he made a self-deprecating joke about his health that had me laughing out loud. He also asked about my writing and said he’d look forward to meeting me when he felt better. Although we never met, I feel like I know him and relate to him.

Heinz was born and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he loved sports as much as he loved to read. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, he worked for the now-defunct New York Sun. He worked his way up from messenger boy to copy boy to city desk reporter. Then World War II began. As a war correspondent for the Sun, Heinz reported on the front line in foxholes with American soldiers in Europe. This included the invasion of Normandy. He met and befriended Hemingway while covering the war. World War II was a humbling and dramatic experience. It also was a great writing experience. In a piece he wrote for True magazine in 1949 titled “The Morning They Shot the Spies,” Heinz described the execution of three Germans by a firing-squad:

I looked at the ground, frost-white, the grass tufts frozen, the soil hard and uneven. I wondered if it is better to die on a warm, bright day among friends, or on a day when even the weather is your enemy. I turned around and looked down into the valley. The mist still hung in the valley, but it was starting to take on a brassy tint from the sun beginning to work through it. I could make out three white farm buildings on the valley floor, a little yellowed now from the weak sunlight, and I could envision this, in the spring a pleasant valley. This view I see now, I said to myself, will be the last thing their eyes will ever see.

When he returned to the U.S., he was granted his wish to work as a reporter for the Sun sports department. While Heinz wrote about baseball, football, and horse racing, it was boxing that he adored, spending month after month hanging out and befriending boxers in Stillman’s Gym at 919 Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

“Boxing has meant so much to me,” Heinz told the Bennington Banner in 2004, having just been inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. “I found in boxing a comradeship much like I found among the G.I.’s in Europe when I was a combat correspondent. When you see two fighters grasp each other in the ring at the end of a fight, it’s genuine.”

One of the best sports stories I’ve read is about a dirty boxer from Brooklyn named Al “Bummy” Davis and titled “Brownsville Bum.” Heinz wrote this piece in 1951, and it begins:

It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.
That’s the way it was with Bummy Davis. The night Bummy fought Fritzie Zivic in the Garden and Zivic started giving him the business and Bummy hit Zivic low maybe 30 times and kicked the referee, they wanted to hang him for it. The night those four guys came into Dudy’s bar and tried the same thing, only with rods, Bummy went nuts again. He flattened the first one and then they shot him, and when everybody read about it, and how Bummy fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain in front of the place, they all said he was really something and you sure had to give him credit at that.

Heinz wrote his best work while living in Stamford, Conn. One of his neighbors and close friends was Red Smith, one of the greatest sports columnists who ever lived. Heinz was great in his own right, writing five columns a week for more than two years at the Sun. When the newspaper folded, he wrote freelance pieces for the major magazines as well as fiction and nonfiction books. He lived in Vince Lombardi’s house for two weeks while working on a biography of the Green Bay Packer coach titled Run to Daylight! Heinz didn’t just write about sports. Also fond of medicine, he co-wrote M*A*S*H, which became a hit movie and television series. Heinz’s father, a salesman, bought him a Remington portable typewriter in 1932. Heinz used it for every piece he ever wrote.

He has been lauded by the great writers of his generation and to those of the present, such as Sports Illustrated senior writer Gary Smith, who said, “W.C. Heinz’s writing is so powerfully clean, it makes me want to run back and clean up every damn sentence I ever wrote or saw.”

Like all great lives, Heinz’s was not without personal hardships. One of his daughters, Barbara, died of a strange illness in 1964. She was 16. Soon after he moved with his wife to Dorset, Vt., the town that Barbara had liked. Heinz lived there until his wife, Betty, who developed Alzheimer’s, died in 2002. They had been married for 61 years. Then he moved to an assisted-living facility in Bennington, Vt.

W.C. Heinz is the type of man that you don’t have to meet to know how great he was. It showed in his writing and in the way he lived his life. He was inducted into three Halls of Fame: Sportswriters; War Correspondents; and Boxing. He will always be the champ.