scorecardresearch Skip to main content

This is a dangerous book.

It's dangerous for the nostalgist — who will be reminded that the center of the sporting world was once a dingy boxing gym in Midtown Manhattan.

It's dangerous for the aspiring sports journalist, who can't even dream of the access W.C. Heinz had to the ballplayers, heavyweight champions, and team executives he covered in the middle of the 20th century.

Heck, it's dangerous for the writer who believes that the best prose is like a windowpane. The clarity of Heinz's declarative sentences and captured dialogue is beguiling and intimidating.

This second book in the Library of America's sportswriting series collects the best of a man who was a war correspondent, daily columnist, novelist, television writer, and a pioneering long-form magazine journalist.


After World War II, Heinz (1915-2008) became a columnist for the New York Sun, where he churned out 700 words five days a week until the paper folded in January 1950. He went on to a magazine career without which his reputation — and this collection — wouldn't exist.

Heinz worked best at length. He layered on the detail "like building a stone wall without mortar" he told Sports Illustrated's Jeff MacGregor in 2000. "You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart, and refit them until they're balanced and solid."

The pieces collected here by editor Bill Littlefield, host of radio's "Only a Game'' and a Globe sports-book columnist, are taken from Heinz's columns, magazine profiles, and 1979 book, "Once They Heard the Cheers,'' for which Heinz revisited some of his most famous magazine subjects and best stories.

One of the smartest decisions Littlefield made was beginning the book with "Transitions," Heinz's introduction in "Once They Heard the Cheers.'' It describes Heinz's shift from war correspondent to sports columnist. Because he's looking back, Heinz is able to tell us about some of the athlete-veterans he met throughout his career, and how their mutual wartime experiences bonded them beyond their transactional reporter-subject relationships. This opening piece resonates through the rest of the volume.


Even in the early columns, you can see the approach Heinz took in his later work, training his eye on the scene like a camera, recording the dialogue to give the reader a feeling of being there. "The Day of the Fight," his 1947 piece for Cosmopolitan — yes, Cosmo once ran boxing stories — is like a Frederick Wiseman film in its restraint and refusal to comment. The piece follows Rocky Graziano before the first of his three brutal fights with Tony Zale. The piece is relatively long and notable for how little happens — they buy the morning papers, they drive around, Rocky takes a nap — I might have called it "Oh, the Mundanity!" The fight itself, which Graziano lost, is covered in the final paragraph.

Heinz was interested in process, in preparation. Very few of these pieces involve any game action. In another piece for Cosmo, "The Fighter's Wife," Heinz spent the evening with Norma Graziano during one of her husband's fights, which she couldn't bring herself to follow on the radio, much less attend.

Heinz, we discover in this book's final story, was closer to Graziano than the earlier pieces disclose. When Rocky got in trouble with the New York State Athletic Commission, Heinz provided behind-the-scenes advice even as he covered the fighter for the Sun. This wouldn't fly today, but credit Heinz for admitting it in 1979.


The problem with having about 700 words to write about W.C. Heinz is that by the end of your piece you've reached the point where Heinz was only warming up.

In "The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete," Heinz ends up driving Pete Reiser, a legendary athlete whose career was curtailed by dozens of injuries and surgeries, from Kokomo, Ind., to a hospital in St. Louis.

It's there, at check-in, where the litany of Reiser's injuries and surgeries that Heinz has layered through the piece results in a mordant joke:

" 'What is your occupation, Mr. Reiser?' she said.

" 'Baseball,' Pete said.

" 'Have you ever been hospitalized before?'

" 'Yes,' Pete said."

As Heinz knew, there was a payoff in patience.

Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern. Follow him on twitter @substockman.