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“I learned to write during the war. The material was so rich you had great opportunity. The trick was to under-write.

…”The writer should be invisible…Listen for the way each person speaks and get that down on paper.”

Bill “W.C.” Heinz

Two wonderful writers died yesterday, W.C. Heinz, 93, and Myron Cope, 79. Both had been sick for some time. Heinz, whose reputation as a pioneer of creative non-fiction has been championed over the past decade, may have been the more accomplished writer of the two, but Cope, who is most famous as the radio voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was a terrific takeout writer in his time (1950s and 60s) as well.

How big a deal was Heinz? The late David Halberstam was one of his greatest supporters. In the introduction to The Best American Sports Writing, 1991, Halberstam wrote:

“When I think of the early influences on me and many of my contemporaries, I think of men like [Red] Smith, [Jimmy] Cannon and [W.C.] Heinz. They were the writers who we as young boys turned to every day, and they were the ones experimenting with form . . . When I think of the pioneers of New Journalism, I think first of the trinity of my early heroes: Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Bill Heinz.”

Glenn Stout, who is the series editor of the Best American Sports books, wrote in an e-mail yesterday: “If I track back my career as a writer, part of it starts when I first read Langston Hughes, and part of it starts when I first read Jack Kerouac, and part of it starts when I first read Heinz in the old Best Sports Stories anthology and realized that sports writing could be literature, too.”

Allen Barra, also via e-mail, added: “He was The Great American Sportswriter. He never wrote in false hyperboles, never tried to be bigger than his subject. He’ll be read when people have stopped watching ESPN.”


Here is how David Maraniss described Heinz in When Pride Still Mattered:

Unlike the old scribes of the Grantland Rice mold, who offered impressionistic portraits of the rite of football, using romantic poetry as a favored device, writers at Sports Illustrated and other magazines were now taking readers deeper inside the game, describing the preparation and play in documentary style, placing less emphasis on the outcome than on process. Among the masters of this new art was W.C. Heinz, a New York magazine writer who got his start when Damon Runyon, dying of throat cancer and unable to talk, was asked in 1946 by an editor for Hearst magazines to name the best young writer in the city, and scrawled “W.C. Heinz can write” on a cocktail napkin, underlining the name threee times.

Heinz’s writing was hard, simple, concise (if you don’t read anything else by the man, please consider the brilliant column, “Death of a Racehorse”). In a good profile that appeared in Sports Illustraed in 2000, Jeff MacGregor wrote that Heinz “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.”

Check out this sampling of ledes from Heinz’s book, Once They Heard Cheers:

From the Introduction (which covers Heinz’s years as a war correspondent for the New York Sun):

Those were the good years, right after the war. I mean that if you got out of it alive and all in one piece, and if you did not lose anyone close to you, and if you had done honest work during that time, no matter what it was or where it was, you knew that the next years, after all that had happened, had to be the good ones, as long as your luck held out.

From The Uncrowned Champ:

When he would come out of Stillman’s Gyn and walk down Eighth Avenue he looked as if he should be over on Fifth. He was given to good clothes and an occasional manicure, and except for a small scar on the bridge of his Roman nose, there were no marks on him. In 126 fights over fifteen years he was never off his feet, and one night in Madison Square Garden, with the title on the line, he licked the welterweight champion of the world, and emerged uncrowned.

The science precedes the art, for the art is based on it, but with the great ones it is instinctive. The rest of us are at best professionals, the science acquired by study and effort, by imitation and adaptation, always waiting for and expecting the art to emerge and transcend science. It never does, and Billy Graham, the consummate professional, was one of the rest of us. I think I was attracted to him because he seemed to me to the be the symbol of the rest of us as he waited for the masterpiece that never emereged.

From Somebody Up There Likes Him:

He said it into a radio microphone that had been thrust in front of his face in the ring in the Chicago Stadium. It was 120 degrees under the ring lights, and his hair hung in black streaks, soaked by his own sweat and the water they had sloshed over him between rounds. His right eye was a slit, and over his left eye there was a dark cake of dried blood. In the sixth round of the second of their three vicious fights, he had just knocked out Tony Zale. Now he was the middleweight champion of the world, and it was an event that involved me as did none other among the hundreds I covered in sports.

Heinz’s most enduring book is probably the boxing novel, The Professional, which Ernest Hemmingway called “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read.” Richard Lally, in an e-mail, told me, “When you read Heinz’s prose, you could see the blood dripping from the mouthpiece.” Elmore Lenoard, who wrote the forward to a recent printing of the book, once told an interviewer:

I liked the book when it came out. It was reviewed in Time magazine, and they gave it kind of a smart-ass review. I thought, “Yeah, but this sounds good.” So I bought the book and read it. Then I wrote to Bill Heinz through his publisher and he wrote back and said, “Boy it’s good to hear from you because you and Hemingway are the only people I’ve heard from outside my friends.”

Then Heinz came to Detroit because he was doing a piece on Gordie Howe. So I spent some time with him, a couple days at least. Went to the hockey game with him. I thought Heinz was a really a good writer. I think some of my rules I got from Heinz. The idea of using just the verb “said” to indicate dialogue. I don’t think he ever used an adverb to modify “said,” which I don’t. He was just a good, simple writer, inspired by Hemingway, as I was in the very beginning before I realized I don’t see any sense of humor (in Hemingway).

In addition, Heinz ghosted Vince Lombardi’s Run to Daylight, another success, and also co-wrote the novel, M*A*S*H. An 2003 article on Heinz by Tim Johnson in the Burlington Free Press explains:

Bill and Betty Heinz moved to Dorset in 1965, after the death of their younger daughter, who had enjoyed going to a summer camp nearby. One day, a manuscript arrived in the mail.

It had been written by H. Richard Hornberger, a thoracic surgeon from Bremen, Maine, who had served in Korea. It was a novel about three surgeons in that war, and it had been rejected by 17 publishers.

Heinz wound up with it through his connection to J. Maxwell Chamberlain, an eminent surgeon with whom Hornberger had trained. Heinz had spent a couple of months with Chamberlain in preparation for a piece on surgery for Life magazine.

“Obviously it needed a lot of work,” Heinz recalled of the manuscript, “but it was so outrageously funny, I laughed all the way through. I decided I’d better test it.”

He gave it to Betty. She was no prude, but he still wasn’t sure what she’d make of the boozy, bawdy exploits of Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John and company.

“All of a sudden I heard her laughing,” he said. “That was the go-ahead signal.” But mostly, he decided to go through with the project “as a favor to Max.”

When Heinz met with Hornberger, he told him what he thought had to be done. “You’ve got these three guys running around like hooligans,” he remembers saying. If you’re going to get away with that Heinz said, “They have to be the three best cutters in the Far East.”

In the rewrite, they enhanced the main characters’ surgical skills, and Heinz reworked the structure, which he envisioned in three divisions: pre-op, operating room and post-op.

“We have to move chapter to chapter, one place to another,” he told Hornberger. “In the O.R., it’s up to you to tell me the procedure, then I’ll work it into the narrative.”

They were back and forth between Maine and Vermont over a couple of years. “MASH,” was published in 1968 under the pseudonym Richard Hooker.

“Then I was out in New Mexico where I was going to do a story on a 97-year-old Indian medicine man,” Heinz said, “when I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘How would you and that doctor like $100,000?’”

“We thought, ‘That’s good.’ That was for the screen rights.”

The movie, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, was an irreverent look at the Army in wartime. It came out when the United States was embroiled in Vietnam, and it was a big hit, which apparently caught the publisher by surprise.

“People were standing in line around the block waiting to get in to see it,” Heinz said, laughing, “and the publisher had no books available. They’d printed 10,000.”

While Heinz mostly wrote about boxers, his pieces on Joe Page (“The Fireman”) and Pete Reiser (“The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete”), are essential reading for any baseball fan:

In 1946, the Dodgers played an exhibition game in Springfield, Missouri. When the players got off the train there was a young radio announcer there, and he was grabbing them one at a time and asking them where they thought they’d finish that year.

“In first place,” Reese and Casey and Dixie Walker and the rest were saying. “On top.” “We’ll win it.”

“And here comes Pistol Pete Reiser!” the announcer said. “Where do you think you’ll finish this season, Pete?”

“In Peck Memorial Hospital,” Pete said.

As for Myron Cope, I have read various pieces that he contributed to both Sport magazine and SI during the ’60s. Recently, a friend hipped me to a compilation of Cope’s stories from that period, Broken Cigars. My copy arrived three days ago. The title was taken from a conversation Cope once had over beers with Alex Hawkins, a journeyman football player who complained that baseball was losing its popularity because, in Hawkins’ words, “nowadays you don’t ever see a fella sliding into second base and breaking his cigar.”

From the introduction:

His complaint about baseball, assuming I read him correctly, was that the laughs were disappearing from teh sport because baseball players had become predictable men–that while they surely varied in a thousand respects, the great majority of them strove publicly to be what was expected of them rather than follow their impulses. They guarded their jobs cautiously and came to think of their work as a base from which they could build alternatives for the day when their legs and arms gave out. Certainly their perspective was not unwise, but inevitably it removed from their grasp the sheer thrill of being a ballplayer. Of being someone who had escaped routine.

I am not sure that I agree with Hawkins that interesting baseball personalities have sharply decreased. But his marvelous imagery–that is, fellas breaking their cigars sliding into second base–later flashed back to me…because Prentice-Hall, the book publishers, had invited me to put together a collection of magazine articles dealing with a certain breed of sports figures that had become, more or less, my beat. Quite early in my free-lance career an editor of True had labeled me “our nut specialist’; other magazine editors, also sensing some sort of perversion in my makeup, followed suit, with the result that I was soon forced to abandon all notion of making a serious contribution to journalism. Instead I have been a biographer of a species that ballplayers call “flakes.” While old colleagues of mine have gone on to write books on foreign affairs or become giants of public relations and advertising, I have gone around picking up the broken cigars that occasionally litter second base.

The collection features stories on Bo Belinsky (“Baseball or Broads?”), Dean Chance, Roberto Clemente, Frank “Trader” Lane, Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, Bob Prince (“Why Doesn’t He Shut Up!”), Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, and Mike Epstein (“Make Way for the Super Jew!”). The book is long out-of-print, but for anyone who enjoys lively magazine writing, this compilation is well worth hunting for.

Heinz and Cope may now be gone, but they will not soon be forgotten.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver