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Tag: w.c. heinz

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Couple of W.C. Heinz gems for you.

1) John Schulian’s tribute to Heinz for Deadspin:

I never realized how many Bill Heinz stories I love until I read The Top of His Game. Some I would have loved earlier if I’d known about them or hadn’t been too lazy to root around for them in the library. But I didn’t, even though I sit here and tell you he was a friend and an inspiration to me. All I can do now is savor what he wrote and suggest that for openers you too might love his beautifully crafted 850-word newspaper columns on Beau Jack buying hats—”Ah want three. Ah want one for every suit”—as he waits to fight in Madison Square Garden, and on Babe Ruth, in his farewell to Yankee Stadium, stepping “into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any man.”

Bill, demanding craftsman that he was, thought “Death of a Racehorse” was the only one of his columns worth saving. But I’m glad his ode to Toughie Brasuhn, the Roller Derby queen, made it into the new collection because I doubt there’s a newspaper sports columnist in America today who’d be given the freedom to write about such an off-the-wall subject. And then there are the columns he constructed entirely of dialogue, harbingers of his best magazine work and even more so of The Professional. They weren’t written off the news or because they were on a subject that got a lot of hits. (Personally, I think only baseball players should worry about hits.) Heinz used dialogue as a device because it was a change of pace and, let’s be honest here, because he was trying to add to his authorial toolbox. So we get boxing guys and fight guys talking and Heinz listening without, he said, taking notes. Truman Capote made the same claim when he wrote the classic In Cold Blood, boasting that he could recall hours of conversation word for word. Somehow I believe Heinz more than I do Capote. I believe the distinct voices he captured on paper, and the oddball theories his largely anonymous characters spout, and the exotic world that rises up before the reader as a result.

It’s surprising how little time Heinz spent as a sports columnist—less than three years and then the Sun folded in 1950 and he took a giant step to full-time magazine freelancing. Judging by the contents of The Top of His Game, there wasn’t a magazine that wasn’t happy to have him—Life, Look, Colliers, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Sport, True, even Cosmopolitan. Granted, it wasn’t Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmo and Heinz wasn’t writing about sex and the single girl. But he was writing about boxing and a boxer’s wife for a distinctly female audience, and he delivered pieces that have stood the test of time.

And here’s one of Heinz’s classic magazine stories, “The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete”:

“Down in Los Angeles,” says Garry Schumacher, who was a New York baseball writer for 30 years and is now assistant to Horace Stoneham, president of the San Francisco Giants, “they think Duke Snider is the best center fielder the Dodgers ever had. They forget Pete Reiser. The Yankees think Mickey Mantle is something new. They forget Reiser, too.”

Maybe Pete Reiser was the purest ballplayer of all time. I don’t know. There is no exact way of measuring such a thing, but when a man of incomparable skills, with full knowledge of what he is doing, destroys those skills and puts his life on the line in the pursuit of his endeavor as no other man in his game ever has, perhaps he is the truest of them all.

“Is Pete Reiser there?” I said on the phone.

This was last season, in Kokomo. Kokomo has a population of about 50,000 and a ball club, now affiliated with Los Angeles and called the Dodgers, in the Class D Midwest League. Class D is the bottom of the barrel of organized baseball, and this was the second season that Pete Reiser had managed Kokomo.

“He’s not here right now,” the woman’s voice on the phone said. “The team played a double-header yesterday in Dubuque, and they didn’t get in on the bus until 4:30 this morning. Pete just got up a few minutes ago and he had to go to the doctor’s.”

“Oh?” I said. “What has he done now?”

[Photo Credit: Gayl Heinz]

New York Minute

Got off the train on 231 and Broadway one night last week and saw a guy selling books on the street. The man was barely holding it together and he didn’t look to have much of anything but then I saw this: Heinz!

Torn cover, sure, but a first edition. I gave him a couple of bucks for it. He was grateful and so was I.

The Banter Gold Standard: Brownsville Bum

Here’s what Jimmy Breslin calls the best magazine story ever written:

“Brownsville Bum”

By W.C. Heinz

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 will- ing 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.

“So you’re AI Davis?” one of the hoods said. “Why you punch-drunk bum.”

What did they expect Bummy to do? What did they expect him to do the night Zivic gave him the thumbs and the laces and walked around the referee and belted Bummy? Bummy could hook too good ever to learn how to hold himself in, if you want the truth of it.

That was really the trouble with Bummy. Bummy blew school too early, and he didn’t know enough words. A lot of guys who fought Zivic used to take it or maybe beef to the referee, but Bummy didn’t know how to do that. A lot of guys looking at four guns would have taken the talk and been think- ing about getting the number off the car when it pulled away, but all Bummy ever had was his hook.

Bummy came out of Brownsville. In the sports pages they are always refer- ring to Brownsville as the fistic incubator of Brooklyn, because they probably mean that a lot of fighters come out of there. Murder, Inc., came out of there, too, and if you don’t believe it ask Bill O’Dwyer. If it wasn’t for Brownsville maybe Bill O’Dwyer wouldn’t have become the mayor of New York.

The peculiar thing about Brownsville is that it doesn’t look so tough. There are trees around there and some vacant lots, and the houses don’t look as bad as they do over on Second Avenue or Ninth Avenue or up in Harlem. Don’t tell Charley Beecher, though, that you don’t think it’s so tough.

“What’s the matter you sold the place?” Froike said to Charley the other day. “It ain’t the same, now you sold it.”

Charley Beecher used to run the poolroom “With the gym behind it on the comer of Georgia and Livonia where Bummy used to train. It was a good little gym with a little dressing room and a shower, and Charley was a pretty good featherweight in the twenties, and his brother Willie, who was even a better fighter, fought Abe Attell and Johnny Dundee and Jack Britton and Leach Cross and Knockout Brown.

“For 17 years I was in business,” Charley said. “Seventeen times they stuck me up.”

He looked at Froike, and then he pointed with his two hands at his mouth and his ears and his eyes.

“I had guns here and here and here,” he said. “All I ever saw was guns.”

The worst part was that Charley knew all the guys. A week after they’d heist him they’d be back for a little contribution, maybe a C note. They’d be getting up bail for one of the boys, and they just wanted Charley to know there were no hard feelings about the heist, and that as long as he kept his dues up they’d still consider him friendly to the club. That’s how tough Brownsville was.

Bummy had two brothers, and they were a big help. They were a lot older than Bummy, and the one they called Little Gangy and the other they called Duff. Right now Gangy is doing 20 to 40, just to give you an idea, and Bummy took a lot of raps for them, too, because there were some people who couldn’t get back at Gangy and Duff so they took it out on the kid.

When Bummy was about seven his father used to run a candy and cigar store and did a little speaking on the side. In other words, he always had a bottle in the place, and he had Bummy hanging around in case anybody should say cop. When the signal would go up Bummy would run behind the counter and grab the bottle, and he was so small nobody could see him over the counter and he’d go out the back.

One day Bummy was going it down the street with the bottle under his coat and some real smart guy stuck out his foot. Bummy tripped and the bottle broke, and Bummy looked at the bottle and the whiskey running on the sidewalk and at the guy and his eyes got big and he started to scream. The guy just laughed and Bummy was lying right on the sidewalk in the whiskey and broken glass, hitting his head on the sidewalk and banging his fists down and screaming. A crowd came around and they watched Bummy, with the guy laughing at him, and they shook their heads and they said this youngest Davidoff kid must be crazy at that.

Davidoff was his straight name. Abraham Davidoff. In Yiddish they made Abraham into Ahvron and then Ahvron they sometimes make Bommy. All his family called him Bommy, so you can see they didn’t mean it as a knock. The one who changed it to Bummy was Johnny Attell.

Johnny Attell used to run the fights at the Ridgewood Grove, a fight club in Brooklyn where some good fighters like Sid Terris and Ruby Goldstein and Tony Canzoneri learned to fight, and Johnny and a nice guy named Lew Burston managed Bummy. When Bummy turned pro and Johnny made up the show card for the fight with Frankie Reese he put the name on it as Al (Bummy) Davis, and when Bummy saw it he went right up to John’s office.

“What are you doing that for?” he hollered at Johnny. “I don’t want to be called Bummy.”

“Take it easy,” Johnny said. “You want to make money fighting, don’t you?”

“People like to come to fights to see guys they think are tough.”

They sure liked to come to see Bummy all right. They sure liked to come to see him get his brains knocked out.

The first time Johnny Attell ever heard of Bummy was one day when Johnny was coming out of the Grove and Froike stopped him. Froike used to run the gym at Beecher’s and handle kids in the amateurs, and he was stand- ing there talking to Johnny under the Myrtle Avenue El.

“Also I got a real good ticket seller for you,” he said to Johnny after a while.

“I could use one,” Johnny said.

“Only I have to have a special for him,” Froike said. “No eliminations.” “What’s his name?” Johnny said.

“Giovanni Pasconi,” Froike said.

“Bring him around,” Johnny said.

The next week Johnny put the kid in with a tough colored boy named Johnny Williams. The kid got the hell punched out of him, but he sold $200 worth of tickets.

“He didn’t do too bad,” Johnny said to Froike after the fight. “I’ll put him back next week.”

“Only this time get him an easier opponent,” Froike said.

“You get him your own opponent,” Johnny said. “As long as he can sell that many tickets I don’t care who he fights.”

The next week Johnny put him back and he licked the guy. After the fight Johnny was walking out and he saw the kid and Froike with about 20 people around them, all of them talking Yiddish.

“Come here, Froike,” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter?” Froike said.

“What is this guy,” Johnny said, “a Wop or aJew?”

“He’s a Jew,” Froike said. “His right name’s Davidoff. He’s only 15, so we borrowed Pasconi’s card.”

“He can sure sell tickets,” Johnny said.

Bummy could sell anything. That’s the way Bummy learned to fight, selling. He used to sell off a pushcart on Blake Avenue. He used to sell berries in the spring and tomatoes and watermelons in the summer and apples in the fall and potatoes and onions and beans in the winter, and there are a lot of pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Bummy used to have a fight to hold his spot.

“I was the best tomato salesman in the world,” Bummy was bragging once.

It was right after he knocked out Bob Montgomery in the Garden. He stiffened him in 63 seconds and he was getting $15,000, and when the sports writers came into his dressing room all he wanted to talk about was how good he could sell tomatoes.

“You go over to Jersey and get them yourself,” he was telling the sports writers. “Then you don’t have to pay the middle guy. You don’t put them in boxes, because when you put them in boxes it looks like you’re getting ready to lam. When you only got a few around it looks like you can’t get rid of them so what you gotta do is pile them all up and holler: ‘I gotta get rid of these. I’m gonna give ’em away!”‘

The sports writers couldn’t get over that. There was a lot they couldn’t get over about Bummy.

When Johnny turned Bummy pro he wasn’t impressed by his fighting, only his following. Every time Bummy fought for Johnny in the Grove he’d bring a couple of hundred guys with him and they’d holler for Bummy. Everybody else would holler for the other guy, because now they knew Bummy was Jewish and the Grove is in a German section of Ridgewood, and this was when Hitler was starting to go good and there was even one of those German beer halls right in the place where the waiters walked around in those short leather pants and wearing fancy vests and funny hats.

The fight that started Bummy was the Friedkin fight. Bummy was just beginning to bang guys out at the Grove and Friedkin was already a hot fighter the Broadway Arena and they lived only blocks apart. Friedkin was a nice about three years older than Bummy, kind of a studious guy they called Schoolboy Friedkin, and there was nothing between him and Bummy except they were both coming up and the neighborhood made the match.

Like one day Bummy was standing in the candy store and a couple of guys told him Friedkin was saying he could stiffen Bummy in two heats. Then they went to Friedkin and said Bummy said Friedkin was afraid to fight. At first this didn’t take, but they kept it up and one day Bummy was standing with a dame on the corner of Blake and Alabama and Friedkin came along.

“So why don’t you two fight?” the dame said.

“Sure, I’ll fight,” Bummy said, spreading his feet.

“Right here?” Friedkin said. “Right now?”

“Sure,” Bummy said.

“I’ll fight whenever my manager makes the match/’ Friedkin said, and he walked away.

Bummy couldn’t understand that, because he liked to fight just to fight. He got right in the subway and went over to see Lew Burston in Lew’s office on Broadway.

“Never mind making that Friedkin match,” he said to Lew.

“Why not?” Lew said.

“Because when I leave here,” Bummy said, “I’m going right around to Friedkin’s house and I’m gonna wait for him to come out, and we’re gonna find out right away if I can lick him or he can lick me.”

“Are you crazy?” Lew said.

By the time Johnny Attell made the fight outdoors for Dexter Park there was really a fire under it. They had show cards advertising it on the pushcarts on Blake Avenue and Friedkin’s old man and Bummy’s old man got into an argument on the street, and everybody was talking about it and betting it big. Then it was rained out five nights and Johnny sold the fight to Mike Ja- cobs and Mike put it into Madison Square Garden.

When Bummy started working for the fight Lew Burston came over to Beecher’s to train him. When Bummy got into his ring clothes they chased everybody out of the gym, and Lew told Bummy to hit the big bag. Bummy walked up to the bag and spread his feet and pulled back his left to start his hook and Lew stopped him.

“Throw that hook away,” Lew said.

“Why?” Bummy said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Lew said, “only for this fight you’ll have to lose that hook.”

Before that Bummy was nothing but a hooker, but for weeks Lew kept him banging the big bag with rights. Then the night of the fight after Bummy was all taped and ready, Lew took him into the shower off the dressing room and he talked to Bummy.

“Now remember one thing,” he said to Bummy. “I can tell you exacdy how that other corner is thinking. They’ve got that other guy eating and sleeping with your hook for weeks. I want you to go out there and I don’t want you to throw one right hand until I tell you. If you throw one right before I say so I’ll walk right out on you. Do you understand?”

Bummy understood all right. He was like a kid with a new toy. He was a kid with a secret that only Bummy and Lew knew, and he went out there and did like Lew told him. Friedkin came out with his right glued along the side of his head, and for three rounds Bummy just hooked and hooked and Friedkin blocked, and a lot of people thought Friedkin was winning the fight.

“All right,” Lew said, after the third round. “Now this time go right out and feint with the left, but throw the right and put everything on it.”

“Don’t worry,” Bummy said.

Bummy walked out and they moved around for almost a minute and then Bummy feinted his hook. When he did Friedkin moved over and Bummy threw the right and Friedkin’s head went back and down he went with his legs in the air in his own corner. That was all the fighting there was that night.

Now Bummy was the biggest thing in Brownsville. AI Buck and Hype Igoe and Ed Van Every and Lester Bromberg were writing about him in the New York papers, saying he was the best hooker since Charley White and could also hit with his right, and he had dough for the first time in his life.

He got $14,000 for the Friedkin fight. When he walked down the street the kids followed him, and he bought them leather jackets and baseball gloves and sodas, just to show you what money meant and how he was already looking back at his own life.

When Bummy was a kid nobody bought him anything and he belonged to a gang called the Cowboys. They used to pull small jobs, and the cops could never find them until one night. One night the cops broke into the flat where the kids used to live with some dames, and they got them all except Bummy who was with his mother that night.

Sure, Bummy was what most people call tough, but if he felt sorry for you and figured you needed him be couldn’t do enough. That was the way Bummy met Barbara and fell in love.

Bummy was 19 then and one day he and Shorty were driving around and Shorty said he wanted to go to Kings County Hospital and visit a friend of his who was sick, and there was this girl about 16 years old. They sat around for a while and Shorty did all the talking and then the next time they went to see the girl Shorty was carrying some flowers and he gave them to her.

“From him,” Shorty said, meaning Bummy.

When the girl left the hospital Shorty and Bummy drove her home, and then every day for a couple of weeks they used to take her for a ride and to stop off for sodas. One day the three of them were riding together in the front seat and Bummy wasn’t saying anything.

“Say, Bobby,” Shorty said all of a sudden, “would you like to get married?”

The girl didn’t know what to say. She just looked at Shorty.

“Not to me,” Shorty said. “To him.”

That was the way Bummy got married. That was Bummy’s big romance. After the Friedkin fight Bummy won about three fights quick, and then they made him with Mickey Farber in the St. Nick’s. Farber was out of the East Side and had a good record, and one day when Bummy finished his training at Beecher’s he was sitting in the locker room soaking his left hand in a pail of ice and talking with Charley.

That was an interesting thing about Bummy’s left hand. He used to bang so hard with it that after every fight and after every day he boxed in the gym it used to swell up.

“I think I’ll quit fighting,” Bummy said to Charley.

“You think you’ll quit?” Charley said. “You’re just starting to make dough.”

“They’re making me out a tough guy,” Bummy said. “All the newspapers make me a tough guy and I don’t like it and I think I’ll quit.”

“Forget it,” Charley said.

When Charley walked out Murder, Inc., walked in. They were all there—Happy and Buggsy and Abie and Harry and the Dasher—and they were looking at Bummy soaking his hand in the ice.

“You hurt your hand?” Buggsy said.

“No,” Bummy said. “It’s all right.”

They walked out again, and they must have gone with a bundle on Farber because the day after Bummy licked Farber he was standing under the El in front of the gym and the mob drove up. They stopped the car right in front of him and they piled out.

“What are you, some wise guy?” Buggsy said.

“What’s wrong with you?” Bummy said.

“What’s all this you gave us about you had a bad hand?” Buggsy said.

“I didn’t say I had a bad hand,” Bummy said.

“You did,” Buggsy said.

“Listen,” Bummy said, spreading his feet the way he used to do it, “if you guys want a fight let’s start it.”

Buggsy looked at the others and they looked at him. They they all got in the car and drove off, and if you could have been there and seen that you would have gone for Bummy for it.

That was the bad part about Bummy’s rap. Not enough people knew that part of Bummy until it was too late. The people who go to fights don’t just go to see some guy win, but they go to see some guy get licked, too. All they knew about Bummy was some of the things they read, and he was the guy they always went to see get licked.

Even the mob that followed Bummy when he was a big name didn’t mean anything to him, because he could see through that. He could see they were always grabbing at him for what they could get, and that was the thing he never got over about the time he was training in Billy West’s place up in Woodstock, New York.

Bummy went up there after he came out of the Army,just to take off weight, and there are a lot of artists around there. Artists are different people, because they don’t care what anybody says about a guy and they either like him or they don’t like him for what they think he is. They all liked him up there, and Billy used to say that Bummy could have been Mayor of Woodstock.

Billy had a dog that Bummy never forgot, either. Bummy used to run on the roads in the mornings and Billy’s dog used to run with him. Every morning they’d go out together and one day another dog came out of a yard and went for Bummy and Billy’s dog turned and went after the other dog and chased it off.

“Gee, this dog really likes me,” Bummy said, when he got back to the house, and he said it like he couldn’t believe it. “He’s really my friend.”

The fight that really started everybody hating Bummy, though, was the Canzoneri fight in the Garden. It was a bad match and never should have been made, but they made it and all Bummy did was fight it.

Canzoneri was over the hill, but he had been the featherweight champion and the lightweight champion and he had fought the best of his time and they loved him. When Bummy knocked him out it was the only time Tony was knocked out in 180 fights, and so they booed Bummy for it and they waited for him to get licked.

They didn’t have to wait too long. After he knocked out Tippy Larkin in five they matched him with Lou Ambers. Just after he started training for Ambers he was in the candy store one day when an argument started between. Bummy and a guy named Mersky. Nobody is going to say who started the argument but somebody called Bummy a lousy fighter and it wasn’t Bummy. Somebody flipped a piece of hard candy in Bummy’s face, too, and that wasn’t Bummy either, and after Bummy got done bouncing Mersky up and down Mersky went to the hospital and had some pictures taken and called the cops.

The first Johnny Attell heard about it was the night after it happened. He was walking down Broadway and he met a dick he knew.

“That’s too bad about your fighter,” the cop said.

“What’s the matter with him?” Johnny said.

“What’s the matter with him?” the cop said. “There’s an eight-state alarm out for him. The newspapers are full of it. He damn near killed a guy in a candy store.”

The cops couldn’t find Bummy but Johnny found him. He dug up Gangy, and Gangy drove him around awhile to shake off any cops, and finally Gangy stopped the car in front of an old wooden house and they got out and went in and there was Bummy.

Bummy was sitting in a pair of pajama pants, and that was all he had on. There were four or five other guys there, and they were playing cards.

“Are you crazy?” Johnny said.

“Why?” Bummy said, playing his cards, but looking up.

“If the cops find you here they’ll kill you,” Johnny said. “You better come with me.”

After Johnny talked awhile Bummy got dressed and he went with Johnny. Johnny took him back to New York and got him a haircut and a shave and he called Mike Jacobs. Jacobs told Johnny to take Bummy down to Police Headquarters, and when Johnny did that Sol Strauss, Mike’s lawyer, showed up and he got an adjournment in night court for Bummy until after the Ambers fight.

The night Bummy fought Ambers there was Mersky right at ringside. He had on dark glasses and the photographers were all taking his picture and when Ambers beat the hell out of Bummy the crowd loved it.

The crowd, more than Ambers, hurt Bummy that night. He didn’t like the licking Ambers gave him, but the hardest part was listening to the crowd and the way they enjoyed it and the things they shouted at him when he came down out of the ring.

“I quit,” he said to Johnny in the dressing room. “You know what you can do with fighting?”

Johnny didn’t believe him. Johnny was making matches for Jacobs in the Garden then and he matched Bummy with Tony Marteliano, but Bummy wouldn’t train.

Only Johnny and Gangy knew this, and one day Johnny came out to Bummy’s house and talked with Bummy. When that didn’t do any good Lew Burston came out and he talked for four hours, and when he finished Bummy said the same thing.

“I don’t want to be a fighter,” Bummy said. “I like to fight. I’ll fight Marteliano on the street right now, just for fun, but when I’m a fighter everybody picks on me. I want them to leave me alone. All I wanted was a home for my family and I got that and now I just want to hang around my mob on the street.”

Johnny still didn’t believe it. They put out the show cards, advertising the fight, and one day Bummy saw one of the cards in the window of a bar and he phoned Johnny in Jacobs’ office.

“What are you advertising the fight for?” he said, and he was mad. “I told you I’m not gonna fight.”

Before Johnny could say anything Jacobs took the phone. Johnny hadn’t told him Bummy didn’t want to fight.

“How are you, kid?” Jacobs said. “This is Mike.”

“Listen, you toothless—,” Bummy said. “What are you advertising me for? I’m not gonna fight.”

He hung up. Mike put the phone back and turned around and when he did Bummy was suspended and Johnny was out of the Garden and back in the Ridgewood Grove.

When Bummy heard what had happened to Johnny he went over to the Grove to see him. All the time Johnny was in the Garden Bummy was a little suspicious of him, like he was a capitalist, but now he was different.

“I came over to tell you something,” he said to Johnny. “I’m gonna fight.”

“Forget it,” Johnny said. “You can’t fight.”

“Who says I can’t fight?” Bummy said.

“The New York Boxing Commission,” Johnny said. “You’re suspended.”

“Let’s fight out of town,” Bumrny said. “We’ll fight where I’m not suspended.”

Johnny did it better. He took Bummy back to Mike and Bummy apologized and Bummy fought Marteliano. For nine rounds they were even, and with ten seconds to go in the last round Bummy landed the hook. Marteliano went down and the referee counted nine and the bell rang and it was another big one for Bummy and he was going again.

It was Johnny’s idea to get Marteliano back, but Bummy saw Fritzie Zivic Henry Armstrong for the welterweight title and he wanted Zivic. If you the two guys you knew this was a bad match for Bummy, because he didn’t know how to fight like Zivic.

There were a lot of people, you see, who called Bununy a dirty fighter, but Zivic fight made them wrong. The Zivic fight proved that Bummy didn’t know how to do it.

When he came out of the first clinch Bummy’s eyes were red and he was rubbing them and the crowd started to boo Zivic. In the second clinch it was same thing, and at the end of the round Bummy was roaring.

“He’s trying to blind me,” he kept saying in the comer. “He’s trying to blind me.”

When it started again in the second round Bummy blew. He pushed Zivic off and he dropped his hands and that crazy look came on that wide face of his and they could hear him in the crowd.

“All right, yo—-,” he said, “if you want to fight dirty, okay.”

He walked right into Zivic and he started belting low. There was no trying to hide anything, and the crowd started to roar and before it was over people were on their chairs throwing things and the cops were in the ring and Bummy was fined $2,500 and suspended for life.

They meant it to be for life—which wouldn’t have been very long at that, when you figure Bummy lived to be all of 26—but it didn’t work out that way. About three weeks after the fight Bummy walked into Johnny’s office with Shorty and Mousie, and they sat around for a time and Johnny could see Bummy was lost.

“You know what you ought to do?” Johnny said. “You ought to join the Army for a while until this blows over.”

This was in December of 1940, before we got into the war. For a while Bummy sat there thinking, not saying anything.

“Could my buddies go with me?” he said.

“Sure,” Johnny said.

So Johnny called up the recruiting officer and Bummy and Shorty and Mousie showed up and there were photographers there and it was a big show. Everybody was for it, and Ed Van Every wrote a story in The Sun in which he said this was a great move because the Army would teach Bummy discipline and get him in good physical shape.

That was a laugh. The first thing the Army did was split Bummy and Shorty and Mousie up and send them to different camps.

They sent Bummy to Camp Hulen, Texas, and their idea of discipline was to have Bummy cleaning latrines with a toothbrush.

You got me into this,” Bummy used to write Johnny. “I’m going crazy, so before I slug one of these officers you better get me out.”

Johnny didn’t get him out, but he got Mike Jacobs to get Bummy a leave to fight Zivic in the Polo Grounds for Army Emergency Relief. Bummy used to fight best at about 147 pounds, and when he came back from Texas he weighed close to 200.

“You look sharp in that uniform, AI,” Zivic said to him when they signed for the bout.

“I’m glad you like it,” Bummy said. “You put me in it.”

You can imagine how Bummy was looking to get back at Zivic, but he couldn’t do it. He hadn’t fought for eight months, and Zivic was a real good fighter and he put lumps all over Bummy and in the tenth round the referee stopped it. They had to find Bummy to take him back to camp. They found him with his wife and they shipped him back, but then the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor and the Army decided it had enough trouble without Bummy and they turned him loose.

Bummy fought some of his best fights after that. He couldn’t get his license back in New York but he fought in places like Holyoke and Bridgeport and Washington and Philadelphia and Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Boston. He didn’t like it in those places, but he had to live, and so no matter where he fought he would always drive back to Brownsville after the fight and sometimes it would be four o’clock in the morning before he and Johnny would get in.

It’s something when you think about Bummy and Brownsville, when you think of the money he made, almost a quarter of a million dollars, and the things he had thrown at him and the elegant places he could have gone. It was like what Lew Burston said, though, when he said the Supreme was Bummy’s Opera, and the Supreme is a movie house on Livonia Avenue.

You have to remember, too, that Brownsville is only a subway ride from Broadway, but Bummy had never seen a real Broadway show until Chicky Bogad sent Bummy and Barbara to see Hellzapoppin the night before the second Farber fight.

“How long has this been going on?” Bummy said when they came out.

“How long has what been going on?” Chicky said.

“People like that on a stage,” Bummy said.

“People on a stage?” Chicky said. “For years and years. For long before they had movies.”

“Is that right? I’ll have to see more of that,” Bummy said, but he never did.

All of those fights Bummy had out of town were murders, too, because Bummy wasn’t hard to hit, but the people liked to see him get hit and when the Republicans got back in power in New York, Fritzie Zivic put in a word for Bummy, saying he guessed he had egged the kid on, and Bummy got his license back. That’s when they matched him with Montgomery.

“What you have to do in this one,” they kept telling Bummy, “is walk right out, throw your right, and miss with it. Montgomery will grab your right arm, and that will turn you around southpaw and then you hit him with the hook.”

They knew that was the only chance Bummy had, because if Montgomery got by the first round he figured to move around Bummy and cut him up. They drilled Bummy on it over and over, and they kept talking about it in the dressing room that night.

“Now what are you going to do?” Johnny Attell said to Bummy.

“I’m gonna walk right out and miss with my right,” Bummy said. “He’ll grab my arm and that’ll turn me around southpaw and I’ll throw my hook.”

“Okay,” Johnny said. “I guess you know it.”

Bummy sat down then on one of the benches. He had his gloves on and his robe over him and he was ready to go when there was a knock on the door.

“Don’t come out yet, Davis,” one of the commission guys said through the door. “They’re selling some War Bonds first.”

When Bummy heard that he looked up from where he was sitting and you could see he was sweating, and then he keeled right over on the floor on his face. Johnny and Freddie Brown rushed over and picked him up and they stretched him on the rubbing table and Freddie brought him to, and now they weren’t worried about whether Bummy would do what they told him. All they were worried about was whether they could get him in the ring.

They got him in the ring and Burston had him repeat what he was supposed to do. When the bell rang he walked right out and threw his right and missed around the head. Montgomery grabbed the arm and turned Bummy around, and when he did Bummy threw the hook and Montgomery went down. When he got up Bummy hit him again and that’s all there was to it.

Montgomery was 10 to 1 over Bummy that night and they couldn’t believe it. Bummy got $15,000 for that fight and he borrowed $1,500 from Jacobs and the next day when Mike paid him off he told Bummy to forget the grand and a half.

“Take it out,” Bummy said, throwing the dough on the desk. “You know damn well if he kayoed me like you thought he would you were gonna take it out.”

Bummy thought he’d never be broke again. He got $34,000 the night Beau Jack beat him and $15,000 when Armstrong stopped him. Then somebody sold him the idea of buying that bar and grill and somebody else sold him a couple of race horses and even after Dudy bought the bar and grill from him he was broke.

He should have been in training for Morris Reif the night he was shot. Johnny wanted him to fight Reif, just for the dough and to go as far as he could, but Bummy said that a lot of his friends would bet him and he didn’t think he could beat Reif, so instead he was sitting in the back of Dudy’s drinking beer and singing.

Bummy used to think he could sing like a Jewish cantor. He couldn’t sing, but he was trying that night, sitting with some other guys and a cop who was off duty, when he looked through that lattice work at the bar and he saw the four guys with the guns.

“What the hell is this?” he said.

He got up and walked out and you know what happened. When Bummy stiffened the first guy one of the others fired and the bullet went into Bummy’s neck. Then the three picked up the guy Bummy hit and they ran for the car. One of the guys with Bummy stuffed his handkerchief in the collar of Bummy’s shirt to stop the blood, and Bummy got up and ran for the car. When he did they opened up from the car, and Bummy went flat on his face in the mud.

When the car started to pull away the cop who had been in the back ran out and fired. He hit one guy in d1e spine, and that guy died in Texas, and he hit another in the shoulder. The guy with the slug in his shoulder walked around with it for weeks, afraid to go to a doctor, and then one night a cop in plain clothes heard a couple of guys talking in a bar.

“You know that jerk is still walking around with the bullet in his shoulder?” the one said. “What bullet?” the second one said.

“The Bummy Davis bullet,” the first said.

The cop followed them out, and when they split up he followed the first guy and got it out of him. Then the cops picked up the guy with the bullet and he sang. They picked up the other two in Kansas City and they’re doing 20 to life. They were just punks, and they called themselves the Cowboys, the same as Bununy’s old gang did.

It was a big funeral Bummy had. Johnny and Lew Burston paid for it. The papers had made Bummy a hero, and the newsreels took pictures outside the funeral parlor and at the cemetery. It looked like everybody in Brownsville was there.

This piece originally appeared in True. It is reprinted here with permission of Gayl Heinz.

More Heinz:

One Throw (Short Story)

The Happiest Hooligan of them All (Pepper Martin)

Death of a Racehorse

Speaking of Sports (Howard Cosell)

Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe the Next Day (Jeremy Vernon)

As a bonus, please check out out this terrific introduction to the Heinz collection What A Time It Was:  The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports.

By Jeff MacGregor

W. C. Heinz is the last surviving member of a golden generation of American writers. A newspaper reporter and columnist, a war correspondent and magazine feature writer, a novelist and short story writer, he was a friend and colleague of Damon Runyon, Grantland Rice, Red Smith, A. J. Liebling, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, and Paul Gallico. At mid-century he was one of the best and most admired writers in America.

Across the arc of a sixty-year career his fiction has been praised by Ernest Hemingway and his combat reportage compared to that of Ernie Pyle. He wrote the book that made Vince Lombardi a sports icon, and co-wrote the classic novel MASH. He wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma peace march and about the Allied march into Germany to end the Second World War. He wrote about success and failure, life and death, and all the dire business of humanity in the busiest half-century of mankind’s history. Mostly, though, Bill Heinz wrote about sports.

Wilfred Charles Heinz was born on January 11, 1915, in Mount Vernon, New York. The only child of Elizabeth and Frederick Heinz, he recalls ancient afternoons spent with his friends flipping baseball cards after school—winner takes Cobb, Ruth, or Johnson, Speaker or Frisch, a fortune’s worth now—the pasteboard cards tossed into the air and then gathered up for the breathless run home. Heinz, fine-boned and slender, played hockey all the way up through high school, so he understood athletics as a physical and competitive expression of self. But he was also an avid reader, devouring sets of Tennyson, Twain, Shakespeare, Balzac, and Poe, which introduced him to a world of ideas, and to self-expression of a different sort. For Christmas in 1932 he received the Omnibus of Sport, a sports writing anthology edited by the legendary Grantland Rice. In it, Heinz discovered the intersection of two things he loved: good writing and sports.

In 1937 Heinz graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he had written and edited the sports page of the school newspaper. In that autumn of ’37, he took his first real job as a messenger boy for one of the afternoon papers down in the city, the New York Sun. He was paid fifteen dollars a week to run errands. Soon promoted to copyboy, by 1939 he was working as a cub reporter, covering school board meetings and apartment fires and learning how to write on deadline. He learned to listen to people, to what they said and how they said it and what they really meant. And most importantly, he learned how to tell a story.

For the next four years, Bill Heinz worked as a general assignment reporter at the Sun. He wrote about corrupt politicians and roller coaster trackwalkers, city bond issues and streetcorner shootings. He occasionally covered basketball or wrote a piece on the new winter sensation, parallel skiing, but he felt stuck and unfulfilled and wasn’t sure where or how far his writing could take him. The Second World War changed all that. He became the Sun‘s junior war correspondent in 1943, covering carrier operations in the Atlantic. His early dispatches were crisp and informative, optimistic, and heavy on the upbeat hometown profiles of Your Boys at Sea. By 1944, though, when Heinz started following the ground war across Europe after the Normandy invasion, his work took on a new gravity, the words tempered by the horrible reality of war seen firsthand. What Heinz saw on the push east to Berlin would inform his work from then on. He stripped away the artifice, did away with any writerly “style” until he made himself transparent. This would characterize the best of his work for the rest of his life.

It is this streamlined lyricism and meticulous devotion to detail that marked Heinz’s work after he returned from Europe in the spring of 1945. He was assigned a sports beat, and quickly became one of New York’s most highly regarded writers. (When asked, in 1946, to recommend a writer for an upcoming magazine job, Damon Runyon, unable to speak because of terminal throat cancer, wrote on a cocktail napkin, “W. C. Heinz very good.” He underlined “very good” three times.)

By 1948 Heinz had his own daily sports column in the New York Sun, fittingly positioned in a double truck layout opposite that of his mentor, Grantland Rice. He wrote magazine pieces and fine short stories as well, raising a family and building a national reputation. One of his columns from that year, “Death of a Racehorse,” which is included in this collection, remains, with all due respect to Bill’s good friend Red Smith, perhaps the best piece of daily newspaper writing you’ll ever read. It is a 700-word master class in how to write. It is observant and precise in detail, lyrical and beautifully metered in its language, and, in its final paragraph, piercingly eloquent about futility, about struggle and loss, and about death.

For over two years, five times a week, Heinz wrote his column in the best sports city in the world. New York was a mecca for everything from football and baseball to hockey and track, to harness racing to the dog show to the six-day bicycle races up at the 168th Street Armory. Heinz wrote about all of it exceptionally well. But what Heinz best loved to write about was boxing. It appealed to his storyteller’s sense with its simplicity, its finality, and its colorful—to say nothing of comic—characters; its sleek and shadowy money men with their pneumatic molls, its artful managers and dogged trainers and idiot savant cornermen, its avid fans and its second-generation fighters, young men bootstrapping themselves up from the gutter and into their split-level, wall-to-wall American dream and then back again.

At places like Stillman’s Gym on Eighth Avenue, Heinz spent his afternoons with his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, and his elbows propped on the damp canvas, taking notes, listening to the way the boxers and their handlers spoke, watching how they moved and what punches they threw. He was an extraordinary student of the form. He saw in boxing’s regulated savagery the purest expression of man’s endless appetite for combat, which he witnessed repeatedly during the war.

Boxing, to any writer but most especially to Bill Heinz, was a tailor-made meeting of the sacred and profane. It has always exerted an irresistible pull on writers of every generation from Jack London to Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Looking back over the years since 1900, though, the simplest way to catalog the relative accomplishments of writers on the subject of boxing is this: There is W. C. Heinz. There is A. J. Liebling. There is everyone else.

The New York Sun closed its doors in January 1950, an early victim of the declining circulation that would reduce the number of daily papers in New York City from ten to three over the next two decades. By the time of its demise, Bill Heinz had already become a successful freelancer for magazines like Collier’s, Sport, the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, True, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Look. Most of the pieces in this collection come from Bill’s magazine work.

Between 1950 and 1958 when his novel The Professional was published to wide critical acclaim (including an effusive congratulatory telegram from one of his most ardent admirers, Ernest Hemingway, and a fan letter from an earnest young author named Elmore Leonard), W. C. Heinz perfected his signature approach to the craft of storytelling. Like a master mason, Heinz built each of his long-form stories as though he were building a wall of mortarless stone. Every word and phrase was carefully set on the words and phrases that went before them. At his best, he was the equal of a Joseph Mitchell or an E. B. White. What can top the two paragraphs which open “Brownsville Bum”?

Heinz had an ear for dialogue, for the truth of what people said and how to write it. He was a student of the great Frank Graham, another sports columnist who had helped perfect the so-called “conversation piece,” stories built around long blocks of dialogue unbroken by writerly asides or commentary. In the days before the tape recorder (and guarded, litigious athletes), it was still possible to report the spirit, if not the letter, of what your subjects said—especially if you made them sound better, or smarter, or more colorful. In this technique, Heinz was, and remains, unmatched.

Through that decade and into the next, Bill Heinz profiled, it seems, every star athlete in America. Stan Musial and Pete Reiser and Eddie Arcaro and Charlie Conerly and Joe Namath. Boxers from Joe Louis to Carmen Basilio to Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Ingemar Johannson to Ezzard Charles and the original Rockys, Marciano and Graziano. In every case what characterizes the writing of Bill Heinz is its drive and its deceptive simplicity. Never strident or overwrought, never hagiographic or adulatory, Bill Heinz wrote sports with a gimlet eye.

He also wrote with the same sure voice about the practice of medicine in his novels The Surgeon, Emergency, and MASH, a book he wrote in partnership with Dr. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. This last title offers a rare glimpse into the sly sense of humor for which Heinz is still best known among his friends. And though these books, along with The Professional, American Mirror, and Once They Heard the Cheers were well-wrought and successful, perhaps Heinz’s greatest triumph was Run to Daylight! his week-in-the-life collaboration with the legendary Vince Lombardi. It made Lombardi a household name. Other members of the press eventually chose to make him a household god.

Even Bill Heinz, who should be a role model for gifted young writers everywhere, has suffered at the inconstant hands of history. Most of the publications for which he did his best work have long since ceased to be. Collier’s, Argosy, Look, True, the Sun, and the Saturday Evening Post have all been lost to us. Heinz never had the stable, high-visibility, long-term platform his friend Red Smith did. He is, at least in part, responsible for the careers of New Journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Frank Deford. Pioneering a new voice and a new approach, he created new opportunities for every writer to follow. And with this collection of his best writing on sports, he will no longer be the best kept secret in American literature.

Bronx Banter Interview: W.K. Stratton

Sports on Earth debuted yesterday and featured a Q&A I did with W.K. Stratton, author of a fine new biography of Floyd Patterson. Stratton is the author of four other books including Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. He also edited Splendor in the Short Grass,  a terrific collection of Grover Lewis’ non-fiction writing.

In our chat over at Sports on Earth, Stratton–who goes by the name Kip–and I talk about Patterson’s relationship with Muhammad Ali. But there’s far more to Patterson’s career than his two fights with Ali.

So, dig in, and please enjoy the rest of our conversation.

Bronx Banter: Patterson has long been a favorite of writers like W.C. Heinz and especially, Gay Talese. Yet there haven’t been so many major biographies on his life. What drew you to writing about him?

Kip Stratton: In the mid-1970s, I took a college class with my mentor, Harry Ebeling, called Nonfiction Prose of Contemporary America. It was, in essence, a class in the New Journalism. This class introduced me to the writing of Gay Talese.  One of the pieces I studied in that class was Talese’s masterpiece from Esquire, “The Loser,” which was about Patterson.

BB: Did you following boxing at that time?

KS: Oh, yeah. I was a boxing fan since I was a kid. Boxing was in a kind of golden age, which probably started around the time of the Patterson-Johansson rivalry and lasted until, say, the Leonard-Hagler fight–which, incidentally, I believe Hagler won–a quarter of a century later. Although Muhammad Ali is the best known there were many terrific boxers were during that time, including Patterson. But I didn’t know how complicated Patterson was until I read that Talese piece. After that, I picked up more and more about Patterson here and there over the years, all of it interesting. In 1988, I met him, briefly, at a celebration marking the centennial of Jim Thorpe’s birth. Something about him in person seemed compelling and that increased my fascination with him. Eventually I read his autobiography, Victory Over Myself, which appeared at the peak of his career and I was blown away by what I read. Then, Thomas Hauser’s authorized biography of Ali appeared, which included a quote from Ali in which he listed Patterson with Liston, Foreman, and Frazier as the best he ever fought. Patterson, but not Ken Norton. Patterson, but not Larry Holmes. Patterson, but not Archie Moore. Ali said Patterson had the best boxing skills of any fighter he met in the ring. That pretty well cinched it for me. I knew I wanted to write about him someday.

BB: Can you talk about the work Talese did on Patterson, both for The New York Times and Esquire and how that influenced your thinking on the fighter. 

KS: Talese joined The Times as a sportswriter after he served a hitch in the Army; earlier, he’d had a job on the Times as a copyboy following his graduation from the University of Alabama. As I recall, he told me he intentionally targeted a job in the sports department because it would allow him to employ more stylistic freedom than other sections of the paper, which were very much locked into “Old Gray Lady” rules of writing. He said he admired what was going on in the pages of some of the other newspapers in the city at the time, in particular The New York Herald-Tribune. The sports pages of the Times would give him the same leeway writers at these other papers had. I read many articles he wrote for the Times’ sports section. They were experimental as hell for that paper. I remember one about the future light heavyweight champion, and future author, José Torres. The profile did not give Torres’ name until the last sentence! So Talese was doing this wonderful sort of creative nonfiction for the Times. To be sure, much of it was immature compared to the masterpieces he would later write. But it was interesting. So, here you have Talese, interested in taking this whole new approach to sports writing and he runs into Floyd Patterson, a whole different sort of boxing champion.

BB: It was as if they were made for each other.

KS: Gay wrote more than four dozen bylined Times pieces about Patterson that I found. I’d never met Talase prior to starting research on the book, but he was nice enough to offer me some time for an interview after I approached him via a mutual acquaintance.

BB: You went to his brownstone here in New York?

KS: I arrived at Gay’s house on the Upper East Side on a day when he suddenly had crushing deadlines of his own. But he granted me time. I think he was impressed that I had dug up all those old Times articles. He was an absolute gentleman–of  course attired in finely tailored clothes. He presented me with an inscribed copy of his newest book, which I totally did not expect. We talked and talked, not just about Patterson and D’Amato and company, but about Norman Mailer and James Baldwin and John Gregory Dunne and two of Gay’s great friends, David Halberstam and Ben Gazzara.

BB: Wow, I knew he’d been friends with Halberstam but not Gazzara.

KS: Yeah, Talese and Halberstam were friends from when they came to know each other as young reporters on the Times. Gay thought Halberstam was the greatest reporter of their generation, and I think he’s undoubtedly right about that. Gay told me that he and Gazzara followed the fights together, among other things. I also read a quote of Talese’s in which he said something like Gazzara, once he became prominent as an actor, let a whole generation know it was okay to be Italian-American. Something like that. It would have been great to have hung out with Talese and Gazzara to listen to them talk about boxing.

BB: And women. Where’s Casavetes when yo need him?

KS: Talese invited me downstairs to his basement office and showed me his archives. Like Mailer, he’s kept everything. Using large sheets of paper, he storyboards his articles as if they are three-act dramas. He showed me his actual storyboard for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which some of us think is the best magazine article ever written by an American. And he showed me the storyboard for “The Loser,” that piece I studied in Harry’s class all those years before. I was flabbergasted to actually see that relic from all those years ago. Talese and I also talked about his collaboration with Patterson for the Esquire article in which Floyd called for people to try to understand Muhammad Ali, not just jeer him, one of the first sympathetic Ali articles to run in a mainstream magazine. So I felt as if I had Talese looking over my shoulder the whole time I worked on this book. You know, this notion of, You better not fuck this up because there are high expectations whenever you take up the subject matter of Patterson.

BB: And he wasn’t alone, right?

KS: Talese, yes, but also Heinz, Mailer, Baldwin, Hamill, Oates, Schulberg–writers of that caliber. So I felt as if I had a standard to meet. Beyond that, Gay gave me a lot of insight into the Patterson saga through his comments in the interview, in particular about D’Amato, a character who merits a great deal of examination.

BB: Patterson had an unusual sensitivity and honesty for a fighter of his caliber, didn’t he?

KS: Let’s start with the instructions given by the referee before the opening bell. Nowadays, this is the time for the absurd exercise in posturing known as the stare-down. It wasn’t quite like it is now in Patterson’s day, but it was still expected that a fighter look the man he was going to battle in the eye. Patterson never did that. He stared at the other guy’s feet. He couldn’t look into the eyes of someone he was getting ready to hurt. If he did that, he wouldn’t be able to fight. He cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head after he knocked Ingo out. He helped an opponent recover his mouthpiece after he, Floyd, knocked it out.

BB: He was also candid, especially with Talese.

KS: Patterson was perhaps the most eloquent champion ever when it came to mining deep feelings and expressing them. He spoke honestly about fear, about cowardice — he described himself as a coward once. At the same time, he was reclusive and seemed to like to stay silent most of the time. He was not comfortable around people, an introvert, yet he did as much charitable work as any champion in history. He lived a conservative lifestyle in that he didn’t drink or do drugs or make the party scene very much, and he held conservative stances about other things, yet he was an early and outspoken liberal when it came to the civil rights movement. He lent his name and gave money to desegregation causes. He went to Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was often, to quote Kris Kristofferson, a walking contradiction.

BB: Patterson’s accomplishments in the ring tend to be overlooked these days. How much of that is due to the huge impression that Ali left?

KS: Patterson was the bridge between Rocky Marciano and Ali. The year Patterson won the heavyweight title, you had Humphrey Bogart appearing in The Harder They Fall. The year Patterson fought his last pro fight, you had Ron O’Neal appearing in Super Fly. Because of this, it’s hard to really associate Patterson with an era in the way you can a Dempsey or a Louis, and I think that’s allowed him to slip through the cracks to a certain extent.

BB: He gets lost.

KS: Absolutely, the light of Patterson gets lost in the glare of Ali. Patterson brings speed into the heavyweight ring that no one had ever seen before, revolutionizing the possibilities for a heavyweight fighter. But then Ali shows up with hand speed that matches Floyd’s and has even faster ring mobility and is taller and weighs more. Makes it easy to overlook Patterson. Floyd is good in interviews, eloquently giving well thought out answers. Ali takes control of interviews, makes them his own, makes them funny, makes them memorable for years to come. Patterson’s a good looking guy. Ali has movie-star good looks, one of the handsomest men to grace the public stage during the 20th century. Patterson has great wins over Moore and Johansson, but Ali has monumental victories over Liston, Frazier, and Foreman, and, indeed, Floyd himself. Mailer writes a significant article about Patterson but writes a significant book about Ali. On and on. The Greatest was and is The Greatest. But I think enough — or more than enough — has been written about him. I think it’s time to look at some of these other figures. Patterson. Joe Frazier. And so on. You go to a bookstore, and often the only boxing titles you see are about Ali. That’s not right. Elvis was the king of rock-and-roll, but that doesn’t mean that Buddy Holly and Little Richard aren’t damned significant figures. So be it with Floyd Patterson.

BB: What is it about stars of the 1950s and early ’60s being forgotten? 

KS: Well, again, I think Ali has something to do with it. People became so fixated with him. We’ve now had a couple of generations of American boxers come along, many of whom don’t know how to keep their hands up or are otherwise lacking in boxing fundamentals because Ali didn’t do it that way. But they’re pretty good at pulling off ring antics of some sort. This is part of the downside of the Ali legacy. Ali became sloppy about staying in shape–of course I’m talking about fighting shape here–in the second part of his career, and that became part of the negative legacy too. And one thing Ali did was that he made the fight be something more than the fight. Often it seemed that the sideshow was more important to the fans than the fight itself. That’s carried over to subsequent generations of fighters.

BB: How so?

KS: Floyd Mayweather is a brilliant boxer, but it seems that his fans are more interested in the gangsta production surrounding the fight than the fight itself. Well, Mayweather understands that expectation and delivers time after time. The fights of the pre-Ali era was something entirely different. Flourishes occurred here and there among the boxers, and fairly often when you talk about Archie Moore, who was a different sort of character for the 1950s, but the fight itself was the thing. Beau Jack headlined the Garden 21 times during the 1940s and ’50s and brought no show except his boxing skills. That was enough for the time. Fighting well. And the fans would stream in to see it. Now there has to be more. Showbiz. Glitz. Outrageous haircuts. Bling glittering off trunks. That’s the expectation. Modern fans don’t resonate with many of those older, pre-Ali fighters who did nothing more in the ring than just fight. In order to have resonance with modern fans, the older boxers have to have a hell of a back story, like Floyd Patterson.

BB: I think it’s interesting that Ali mentioned Patterson over Norton who fought well against Ali, arguably better than Patterson did.

KS: Floyd had a great trainer in Dan Florio. It is doubtful that any heavyweight champion had better instruction in and subsequent competency at the rudiments of boxing than Patterson. You know, how to set up a right cross with a left jab. How to set up a right uppercut. So I think in part what Ali was saying is that Patterson was the best schooled of any boxer he faced. Beyond that, if you watch the film of the first Ali-Patterson fight, you see that Floyd’s hand speed was something Ali was unaccustomed to encountering. Ali lived and died by his jab, but Patterson had the speed to catch a lot of Ali’s jabs in that first fight. Now, don’t get me wrong: The fight was a mismatch from the get-go. Ali was bigger and younger; Floyd was injured and shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place. But in those early rounds, Floyd does a very respectable job taking Ali’s jab away from him by blocking them with his right hand. I think those are the reasons Ali had so much respect for him.

BB: Since Ali has cast such a large shadow over Patterson, and a host of other fighters, can you talk about how Patterson stands up on his own, without comparing him in any way to Ali.

KS:  First, let’s talk about Floyd the amateur. Pete Hamill has said that Patterson was one of the great amateur boxers in the history of American sports. Hamill’s right. Patterson’s record in the Golden Gloves and the AAUs is very impressive, especially when you consider he was 16 and 17 years old when he was scoring all those victories. Then he went to the Olympics. The 1952 US boxing team at the Helsinki games is a great story. The United States had never performed particularly well in Olympic boxing prior to 1952; our teams were dominated by white collegians before that. But in 1952, you had a team whose dominate fighters were inner city guys who were tough and talented. That team brought back five gold medals to America. Five! And all five of the gold medalists were African American. This was at a time when big league baseball and pro football were barely integrated. It would be twenty years before some Southwest Conference football teams integrated. This was a huge event in the history of sports in America. And Floyd Patterson was the star of that team. To the end of his life, Floyd said that winning a gold medal in the Olympics was his proudest accomplishment.

BB: And that’s all before he went pro.

KS: That’s right. He won the heavyweight title at age 21, the youngest man to do so. His record stood for around three decades before Tyson won it at an even younger age. Patterson won the title, lost it, then regained it. He was the first person in history to win the title twice. This was something that boxers the likes of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis couldn’t do. He came damned close to winning the title a third time in his fight against Jimmy Ellis. At around the halfway point of his pro career, he, an African American fighter, fired his white manager and became his own manager. He did all these things showing a high level of fair play and honor. For instance, everything was set up for him to be able to avoid fighting Sonny Liston. Many people inside and outside the boxing world believed Liston’s extensive criminal background was justification for keeping him from competing for the crown. Floyd could have bought into that argument and every sanctioning body would have supported his decision. But Patterson believe Liston had earned a shot at the title, that he deserved it, and Patterson gave it to him, even though he knew it would spell his doom as champ. Remarkable, just remarkable.

BB: And he had a complicated relationship with the trainer Cus D’Amato.

KS:  Patterson had to paired with just the right mentor if he was ever going have any success fighting. I believe it could not have been anyone else other than Cus D’Amato. I spend a good deal of time in a boxing gym and I hear the same thing over and over: Boxing is mostly mental. Boxing is 75 percent psychological. My friend Anissa Zamarron, a two-time world champion female boxer, says that a successful boxer has to take on the mind-set of a rooster in a cockfight whenever the bell rings. Well, getting Floyd to be a rooster psychologically took some doing. I’m not sure anyone other than D’Amato could have taken Floyd that far. He was a very talented amateur psychologist, I believe, especially when dealing with young boxers, teenaged boxers. Floyd came from a large family and his father was usually absent, out working, holding down two or more jobs, and because his father worked so much, I got the feeling that Floyd didn’t receive very much fathering from him. Floyd was closer to his mother. D’Amato became this sort of surrogate father figure.

BB: Your portrait of D’Amato could be a book on its own.

KS: D’Amato was pretty messed up himself. He was regarded as a mystery figure during his prime–some writers wrote that he had no family, stuff like that. But I dug up quite a bit about him. In fact, he was the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the Bronx, lost his mother at a very early age, had a beloved brother, a boxer and a talented artist, shot and killed by a New York cop. D’Amato went through serious depression as a kid, obsessed with funerals and all that. He also told stories about himself as being some sort of vicious street tough, which were probably exaggerated or made up entirely. He was a ne’er-do-well who couldn’t keep a job, a dabbler in city politics but not too successful in that either. But then he stumbled into the world of boxing, and though he was no athlete himself, certainly never boxed, he found himself in this world of prizefighting. Boxing was completely mobbed up in New York at the time, and D’Amato willing “did business,” in his early days when called upon to do so. But then he eventually very publicly set out to expose the mob’s reign in boxing with an attempt to dislodge; at the same time, he continued to associate himself, secretly, with some powerful organized crime figures. Complicated man. He had no interest in making money for himself, but I think he was a kind of publicity hound. He always wanted it known that he was the brains behind Patterson. He brought Floyd along brilliantly through the amateur and early pro days. No one could have done a better job. He and Dan Florio were able to pick fighters that stretched Patterson, helped him grow from a middleweight to light heavyweight and then to a heavyweight contender. Cus was great at building up Patterson’s confidence. So a father figure, a confident, an adviser, a spokesman–all  those things. But there were also problems.

BB: Was Patterson’s break from D’Amato necessary in him becoming his own man?

KS: Once Patterson won the world title, it became apparent that D’Amato was a bit in over his head in handling a champion at that level. He made mistakes on contracts that ended up costing Floyd money. That sort of thing. Just making a fight was a tortuous process for him. The business decisions were what Patterson pointed to when he eventually talked about why he fired D’Amato and took over his own career. But there was more. I think part of it was the need for a son to break away from his father, figuratively speaking, for Floyd to prove that he was his own man. D’Amato’s hesitancy to match Patterson with some of the ranking contenders of the late 1950s made it almost seem as if Floyd were afraid to fight them. Well, one thing you didn’t do to a proud black man was put him into situations in which it might seem as if he were a coward. Jesus, that harkened back to way too many old American stereotypes. I’m not sure D’Amato ever got that, however.

BB: You write about how he have made some unwelcome advances though Patterson never called him out publicly on that.

KS: I discovered in my reserach there was a lot of whispered speculation about D’Amato’s sexuality in some quarters. D’Amato had a long-time relationship with Camille Ewald, but she usually lived apart from him. In the 1950s, a man was expected to be married with children or have a very visible girlfriend or, in the world of boxing, maybe both. Cus didn’t do this, so he was suspect. For a time, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jim Jacobs. That too spurred whispering. I mention this because in the context of the times, this was a big deal. Then there was the event about which Patterson told Talese. D’Amato was so obsessive about “protecting” Patterson from enemies, real or imagined, that he took to sleeping the same bedroom with him. And then in the same bed with him. One night, Floyd told Gay, Patterson awoke to feel D’Amato rubbing Floyd’s leg with his foot. Floyd feigned sleep and didn’t react in any way. Nothing like this ever happened again, as far as I could find out. And who knows? D’Amato may have been sound asleep himself and it was some sort of reflexive thing. I mention all this only to portray just how closely, how intimately if you will, connected Patterson and D’Amato were at one point. It went beyond the typical manager/trainer’s relationship with a boxer, and because of the nature of the sport, that’s always a pretty intimate relationship anyway.

BB: Still, Patterson need to break from him eventually.

KS: Floyd could never become what he did had it not been for D’Amato, but he also had to break with D’Amato if he was to grow into a man fully in charge of his life. Floyd broke with Cus and drove his career where he thought it had to go, the fights with Liston and Ali, the defeats, the dethronement, the tarnished legacy. To me this is what Aristotle was getting at when he wrote about tragedy. To me, Floyd Patterson is a tragic figure in this regard. And if it was cast into the tradition five-act form, D’Amato would be a key figure in “The Tragedy of Floyd Patterson.”

BB: Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask you about your book of poetry, Dreaming Sam Peckinpah. How did you get into poetry?

KS: Poetry was the first thing I wrote in earnest. In high school, I had a teacher, Kenny Walter, who turned me on to contemporary poetry in a serious way. Now, where I came from, it wasn’t exactly okay for a guy to be interested in something like poetry, under normal circumstances. But Kenny had been something of a star athlete in my home town before he went off to college and came back a teacher, and he was still a serious weekend basketball and tennis player and a serious bird hunter. So he showed you could be into poetry and still be “manly.” Keep in mind we’re talking about a pretty remote place–rural Oklahoma—inhabited by a lot of people with backwards notions. So Kenny made poetry accessible, and I sure as hell was interested.

BB: What poets did you read early on?

KS: The big poet who fascinated us at that time was James Dickey, again, a former athlete, a guy who seemed to know a lot about the woods, a guy who seemed to know a lot about things like archery. Since then I’ve learned he was in part a fraud, a damaged person, but, again, he wrote about things I could relate to. Anyway, through that portal, I entered this whole world of verse. I was so damned naïve—I didn’t realize there were all these competing factions in that world. The portal through which I entered was one dominated by some poets who would be classified as Academic poets: Dickey, Richard Hugo, William Stafford. Stafford eventually became a friend of mine for a while, a kind, generous man. Also Robert Lowell during his confessional period—I still think “Skunk Hour” is a terrific poem. Elizabeth Bishop.

BB: When did you break out of the “academic poets”?

KS: That came later and was a liberating experience. Here were a bunch of people writing verse that came from the truest artistic inspiration. Sometimes the verse ended up being, to my taste, not completely successful, but, damn, you could not deny the spirit and the true artistic inspiration behind it. Other times the verse exceeded what the Academics could pull off at their best. I remember well watching a black-and-white PBS documentary about Charles Bukowski at a time when Bukowski was hardly known. It was fascinating and led me to seek out some of his early verse, which was not easy to find in a place like Oklahoma City at that time. As I said, it was liberating. So I just kept writing verse, never stopped. I write poetry that’s not destined to end up in The New Yorker or Poetry. I came in through the Dickey-Hugo-Stafford portal, and their influence is still on me, but I think I wound up writing more in the Outlaw Poetry tradition.

BB: What did you write about?

KS: I wrote a series of haiku about boxing, in part as a sort of satire on the form. Seriously, boxing haiku? Sports infiltrates the verse. I write about rodeo. I wrote a poem about learning at a football game about the suicide of a girl I knew and dated some as a teenager. I wrote poems about a lot of hard slices of life, about dumping my father’s ashes in a stream in the Cascades, about my stepbrother’s death from AIDS. I wrote poems about Merle Haggard and Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates and Dennis Hopper. I wrote about beer joints. I wrote about a Mexican food place in Uvalde, Texas.

BB: And then…Peckinpah?

KS: I’ve long considered the director Sam Peckinpah to be a kind of poet, when he was at his best. He created his metaphors in the mixed media of film rather than by writing them down as lines on paper. I’ve thought a lot about Peckinpah’s work over the years, read a lot about him. I had a poem that included in a line the phrase “dreaming Sam Peckinpah.” I thought for a long time it would be a good title for a book. Well, I had all these poems I’d written, one or two going back more than thirty years. And one day it occurred to me that they could be arranged in a thematic way, sort of in the way a rock concept album from back in the day would be arranged. So I did that, drawing on quotes from or about Peckinpah, and, damn, if I wasn’t happy with the results. About that same time, a wonderful small press publisher had told me he’d be interested in something like what I was working on. Things clicked. And that’s how Dreaming Sam Peckinpah came to be.

Visit Stratton’s website here; you can purchase the Patterson book, here.

The Heinz Files III: Speaking of Sports

From Gayl Heinz comes a letter that Howard Cosell once sent to her father, Bill (better known as W.C. Heinz). It concerns a Mets game back in 1962.

The handwritten P.S. from Cosell reads: “The gist of the mail and calls was…at last we understand Stengelese.”

From Ali to Xena: 47

Vanishing Act

By John Schulian

In my show business alphabet, the scarlet letter will always be “s” for syndication. The instant I started wearing it, the network and cable people doing high-end dramas treated me like I was descended from intellectual pygmies who eat rabid bats and worship Soupy Sales. Only the young and promising receive special dispensation for working on a syndicated show to get a foot in Hollywood’s door. But I was 51 when I crawled away from “Xena” and “Hercules,” old enough to have known better. I would have had to be a miracle worker to avoid being branded as a junk peddler and cast into darkness. Alas, I was fresh out of miracles.

My new status hit me like a pie in the face on my next gig, an appallingly uninspired private eye show called “Lawless.” The title had absolutely nothing to do with Lucy, though I couldn’t help wishing she were around to give our leading man lessons in how to roll with the flow instead of turning to stone whenever the camera was on him. Brian Bosworth was a washed-up football star who realized how badly he wanted to act when Bo Jackson trampled him on national TV. The Boz got his chance in a series of cheap action movies that proved he wasn’t any better at it than he was at tackling. But that didn’t stop the brain trust at Fox TV from handing him “Lawless.” The thinking seemed to be that if enough helicopters landed in Lawlesss’s mother’s backyard simultaneously, we’d have a hit.

I found myself in the trenches with Frank Lupo, who had created or co-created something like 16 series, and Richard Christian Matheson, who had scored big in TV and was now devoting most of his time to writing novels and screenplays. While the network dithered about choppers and the proper sidekick for Bosworth, our biggest decision every day was where to eat lunch. The rest of the time, we cashed fat paychecks, complained about our offices in a converted Culver City warehouse, and listened to Lupo tell stories. My favorite was about Robert Blake, in his “Baretta” days, introducing himself to this son of a Brooklyn pizza maker by saying, “I’m crazy, you know.”

On Friday nights, gang kids would gather in the shadows of our dead-end street to drink and howl at the moon while we scampered for our respective Mercedes. That was as close to the real world as we came, unless you want to consider the fate of “Lawless” itself. Fox didn’t get its desired number of helicopters and we were left to bang out scripts in a white heat. Predictably, the show was cancelled after one episode. The only reason “Lawless” lasted that long was because the network didn’t have anything to replace it at the half-hour.

Lew Jenkins

From that point forward, I could see the last of the sand running through my hourglass. I tried to buy myself more time by writing screenplays, one of them based on W.C. Heinz’s unforgettable magazine story about Lew Jenkins, a go-to-hell prizefighter from Texas who became a war hero in Korea. The Jenkins script got me a flurry of meetings and, for a minute or two, made me the poster boy for the Creative Artists Agency’s in-house campaign to have its TV writers cross over to movies. Unfortunately my timing was dreadful. “Cinderella Man” was already in the works, and so was a Meg Ryan movie about a real-life female fight manager. I wanted to tell the people who were using those projects as a reason to say no to me that Jenkins’ story was better than either of them. But I kept my mouth shut, and when movie people asked if I had any other ideas, I always mentioned Gram Parsons, who married classic country music to a rock-and-roll sensibility and died of hard living way too young. I didn’t get anywhere with that one, either. Johnny Knoxville did. Need I say more?

Eventually I did what most every frustrated screenwriter does. I changed agents. Why not? I’d changed agents, and agencies, even when I wasn’t frustrated. I’d changed them because one agent was a creep who sexually harassed his female assistants. And because my instincts told me another was a bad fit for me. And because a woman who represented me left United Talent for CAA after she became a target for an abrasive, emotionally damaged colleague she had made the mistake of dating.

When I talked myself into believing she had lost sight of whatever it was I did best, I jumped again, to Paul Haas, at ICM. It was the worst move I ever made professionally. When I think of him now, I’m reminded of Murray Kempton’s analysis of Bill Clinton: “too smart by half.” Haas wasn’t book smart, though; he was Hollywood smart, slick and self-absorbed, almost feral in his quest to get to the top of the meat pile. Not unusual qualities in an agent, but I failed to see the warning sign that said “by half” until he told me to meet with the producers of a show about a fat cop who was a martial arts wizard. It was exactly the kind of claptrap I wanted to get away from, so I refused. Then the producers of another show about a fat cop said they didn’t want to meet with me because I’d done “Xena” and “Hercules.” They robbed me of the chance to say no to them first, the bastards.

Far worse, however, was that Haas soon lost interest in me. He had bigger fish to fry, more important clients who could make him more money, and a more prestigious place at the table to claim for his own. The only attention I got from him bordered on condescension. When I wrote pieces for GQ and Sports Illustrated to maintain my sanity, he congratulated me on “reinventing” myself, as if I’d never told him that I was a newspaper and magazine guy at heart. That wasn’t the only thing he didn’t pay attention to. There was also my Lew Jenkins screenplay, which he handed off to two of ICM’s young sharks. Their names were Todd and Danny, and on those rare occasions when I look at the trade papers now, I see they’ve prospered. But when they were supposed to be championing my cause, I never heard from them. After a year of being ignored, I complained to Haas and quickly got a call from Todd. Or Danny.

“That was a great script,” whichever one I was talking to said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Remind me what it was about, would you?”

I hung up. If it hadn’t, I would have told Todd – or Danny – I had a new screenplay that I had written specifically for the purpose of sticking up his ass. Even now I have moments when I fantasize about seeing one of them in some fancy-schmancy restaurant and decking him. Not so much as a “Remember me?” Just lights out. But I’m too old for such nonsense and too weary to get exercised over the everyday cruelties that pass for standard business practices in Hollywood. Maybe I was gassed back then too and just wouldn’t admit it. How else to explain the fact that I never fired Haas no matter how useless he was?

It took an old friend from “Midnight Caller,” Stephen Zito, to open the door for me at “JAG.” The show was more fun than I expected it to be with one exception: its creator and executive producer, Don Bellisario. With a foul-smelling cigar smoldering in his mouth, a disdain for any idea that wasn’t his, and a tin ear for dialogue, Bellisario leeched all the joy out of writing. He was a bully and a lout and a war lover who’d never been to war. You’d have to go a long way to find anyone in TV more despised. I’m surprised I lasted 25 episodes. Not that things improved when Haas steered me to “Outer Limits” and I promptly shot myself in the foot by telling an executive producer with a lube-job haircut that a story he embraced was no story at all. That would have been my last stand if David Israel hadn’t brought me aboard as his right-hand man on “Tremors.” It had monsters, oddball humor, and weird characters in a forgotten desert town. Hits have been made of less. But we were saddled with the two amiably passive-aggressive guys who wrote the movies on which “Tremors” was based, and they refused to adapt to the realities of TV. They just made the same mistakes over and over until they looked up one day and the show was off the air.

I was as far as I could be from those heady times when Steven Bochco invited me to come out and try my hand at writing scripts. Where once the TV business had given me with hope, I now felt diminished. I found myself remembering the long-in-tooth writers who had come in to pitch their tired episode ideas on “Miami Vice” and “Midnight Caller,” and how I had promised myself I wouldn’t end up the way they had. If I insisted on squeezing the last drop of juice from the orange, that was exactly who I’d be – short on pride and dignity, just a beggar with a nice car. It felt as though there were less of me every time I turned around. I was in a bad sci-fi movie and I was slowly vanishing.

Click here for the full “From Ali to Xena” archives.

Bronx Banter Interview: John Schulian

“Perhaps because he decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, while he was still in his prime, John Schulian has never quite been recognized as one of the last in the great line of newspaper sports columnists that started with Ring Lardner, ran through W.C. Heinz and Red Smith, and probably ended when Joe Posnanski left the Kansas City Star in 2009. This is a shame. On his better days, he rated with anyone you might care to name.”

Tim Marchman on John Schulian’s latest collection, “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us.” (Wall Street Journal)

John Schulian has been entertaining us this year with the story of his career in “From Ali to Xena.” He has a new collection of sports writing out and we recently caught up to talk about it. Here’s our conversation.


BB: Your work has been collected twice before: “Writers’ Fighters,” a boxing compilation, and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,” a collection of baseball writing. What was the genesis of your new anthology, which is both broader and more specific than those two?

JS: “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” was born of a mixture of ego and an urge to remind readers of the kind of sports writing they’re no longer getting in newspapers. What writer doesn’t want to have his work, at least that portion of it which isn’t embarrassingly bad, preserved in book form? I got my greatest lessons in writing by reading collections of my favorite sports writers—Red Smith, W.C. Heinz, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner—so having a collection with my name on it became a goal early on in my career. Because “Sometimes” is my third, I may have exceeded my limit, but I hope people will forgive me when they see that it’s wider in scope than “Writers’ Fighters” and “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods.” I’m not just talking about the number of different sports it touches on, either. I’m talking about the personalities involved, and how open they were about themselves and their talents.

I realize, of course, how rare such accessibility is in today’s world, with athletes wary of any kind of media, protected by their agents, and generally paranoid about revealing anything about themselves except whether they hit a fastball or a slider. I think it was you who told me the change came about in the early ‘90s, which did a lot to shape this book. Suddenly, I knew how to make it more than a vanity project. The key was to make it stand as a tribute to the kind of sports writing that enriched newspapers when guys like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica, David Israel, Leigh Montville, Bill Nack, Tony Kornheiser, Tom Boswell and I were turned loose with our portable typewriters. It was my great good fortune to work in an era so rich in talent, so full of talented people who were both my competition and my friends. Likewise, the athletes were there to talk to when you needed them. I know I didn’t always get the answers I wanted, but I got enough of them to give my columns and my magazine work the heartbeat they needed. It was a wonderful time to be a sports writer, and I hope “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand” bears that out.

BB: I was struck by your piece on John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII. Your starting and closing image is the most famous one from that game. You didn’t get any special access that your peers didn’t have and yet within those limitations the piece is just so writerly. The kind you don’t see today. How were you able to condense a guy’s career into a single column?

JS: It was pure reflex. I forget how much time I had for post-game interviews, but it wasn’t much before I had to get back to my computer. I’m guessing I had an hour or so to write the column. There were some guys who routinely finished in less time than that, but for me, that was a sprint. I still wanted the column to be as stylish as possible. Sometimes that was my undoing, because I spent too much time massaging the language and not enough just saying what I wanted to say. With the Riggins column, though, things fell into place. I’d spent a lot of time around the Redskins during the regular season and into the playoffs, so I was pretty well steeped in his story. As for working with the same post-game material everybody else had, there was something liberating about that. No scoops, no exclusive interviews, just a good old-fashioned writing contest. When you get in a situation like that, if you can get your mind right, everything just flows. And that was certainly the case when I wrote about Riggins. I knew instantly where all the pieces of the puzzle were supposed to go—imagery, post-game quotes, back-story. Then my instincts took over, and I even made my deadline. What could be better than that?

BB: The majority of the stories in the collection were written for newspapers. Can you describe the atmosphere of that business in the post-Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein days when columnists were stars?

JS: The newspaper business became truly glamorous after Watergate. Robert Redford played Woodward, Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein, and Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post’s executive editor, practically became Jason Robards, who portrayed him on the screen. It just didn’t get any cooler than that, and the people at the Post were certainly aware of it, maybe too much so. I noticed the self-importance and inflated egos when I showed up there in 1975, in the wake of Watergate. The Post was a wonderful paper—beautifully written, smartly and courageously edited—but it was still a newspaper. There were still typos and factual errors and the kind of bad prose that daily deadlines inspire. The ink still came off on your hands, too. And there were still desk men with enlarged prostates and reporters who stank of cigar smoke, and one night some son of a bitch stole my jacket. Maybe worst of all, if you looked beyond the Post, you could see the storm clouds gathering. More and more afternoon papers were dying, and there was a segment of the population that hated the Post for unhorsing Dick Nixon and the New York Times for printing the Pentagon Papers. But newspaper people, who can be so sharp about spotting trouble on the horizon for others, tend to be blind when it comes to their own house. No wonder it felt safe and good and even magical to work on newspapers after Watergate. I loved it as much as anybody. And I probably would have liked the dance band on the Titanic, too.

BB: Before we get to the players, let’s talk about the section you have on the writers—Red Smith, A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Mark Kram and F.X. Toole—because it reminds us that the era you cover wasn’t just about the athletes, it was about the writers too. Can you talk about what a remarkable stylist Mark Kram was in his prime?

JS: I don’t think any sports writer ever wrote prose as dense and muscular and literary as Mark Kram’s. He opened my eyes to the possibilities of what you could do in terms of pure writing even though the subject was fun and games. If you want to read classic Kram, you need only turn to the opening paragraphs of his Sports Illustrated story about the Thrilla in Manila. It has to be one of the most anthologized pieces in any genre of writing. I know that it was a mortal lock to be in “At the Fighters” as soon as George Kimball and I sat down to edit the book. Kram had been on my radar since I was in college. He absolutely killed me with his bittersweet love letter to Baltimore, his hometown, on the eve of the 1966 World Series. He was under the influence of Nelson Algren when he wrote it, but I wouldn’t figure that out until years later. All I knew was that he had taken a mundane idea and turned it into a tone poem about blue collar life. Baseball was only a small part of it, and even though I was under the Orioles’ spell—Frank Robinson! Brooks Robinson! Jim Palmer!—I loved Kram’s audacity. He wasn’t afraid of the dark no matter how bright the lights on what he was writing about.

No wonder he was so great when the subject was boxing. When I was in grad school, he did a piece about the fighting Quarry brothers and how their old man had ridden the rails from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposedly golden promise of Southern California. He had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles, and Kram left me with a picture of him standing in a boxcar door as the train carried him toward a future filled with more sorrow than joy. I read the story standing at the newsstand where I bought SI every week, and when I got back to my apartment, I read it again. I would discover A.J. Liebling, W.C. Heinz, Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, John Lardner, and all the other giants of fight writing later, but Mark Kram was the one who lit the way for me. And it began with that story about the Quarry brothers and the image of their old man in the boxcar door.


The Heinz Files: Part One

W.C. Heinz was one of the great magazine writers of the 20th century. Thanks to his daughter Gayl, we are going to run a series featuring some of Heinz’s work. First up, the original manuscript for a Pepper Martin profile that appeared in True. The story ran in the October issue, 1959.

Now, dig Heinz’s original:


[Photo Credit: Gaspar Tringale]

One Throw

Bronx Banter is proud to present “One Throw,” a classic piece of short baseball fiction by the great W.C. Heinz.

All thanks to Heinz’s daughter, Gayl, for making it happen. In a recent e-mail, Gayl wrote:

“One Throw” was first printed in a July 15, 1950 issue of Collier’s magazine. In 1959 Summer Time Scholastic magazine picked it up. I don’t know if it was printed anywhere in between, but it has been reprinted many times since in English textbooks as an instructional piece on how to build a plot, use dialogue, and so on. The most recent contract for a textbook reprint was this past summer. “One Throw” also appears in “The Third Fireside Book of Baseball,” 1968, edited by Charles Einstein….and who knows where else?! I know Dad was always pleased with its timelessness and longevity.

Here it is. Hope you enjoy.

“One Throw”

By W.C. Heinz

I checked into a hotel called the Olympia, which is right on the main street and the only hotel in the town. After lunch I was hanging around the lobby, and I got to talking to the guy at the desk. I asked him if this wasn’t the town where that kid named Maneri played ball.

“That’s right,” the guy said. “He’s a pretty good ballplayer.”

“He should be,” I said. “I read that he was the new Phil Rizzuto.”

“That’s what they said,” the guy said.

“What’s the matter with him?” I said. “I mean if he’s such a good ballplayer what’s he doing in this league?”

“I don’t know,” the guy said. “I guess the Yankees know what they’re doing.”

“What kind of kid is he?”

“He’s a nice kid,” the guy said. “He plays good ball, but I feel sorry for him. He thought he’d be playing for the Yankees soon, and here he is in this town. You can see it’s got him down.”

“He lives here in this hotel?”

“That’s right,” the guy said. “Most of the older ballplayers stay in rooming houses, but Pete and a couple other kids live here.”

He was leaning on the desk, talking to me and looking across the hotel lobby. He nodded his head. “This is a funny thing,” he said. “Here he comes now.”


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