AMESBURY — In her home, Gayl
Heinz has placed a manual typewriter atop the bar. Visitors are amazed to learn that no less a figure than Ernest Hemingway typed on it.
But students of classic sportswriting are equally impressed that the slender 1932 Remington belonged to Heinz’s father, the late W.C. Heinz. Hemingway, who borrowed the typewriter while both were serving as correspondents during World War II, was an admirer. So was the writer David Halberstam, who was working on an anthology of great sportswriting when a question occurred to him.
“Is Bill Heinz still alive?” Halberstam asked.
By 1999, when Halberstam compiled “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” Heinz was largely forgotten, a victim of age, health, his seclusion in Vermont, and the changing nature of the newspaper and magazine businesses. But for readers who had grown up seeking out his pieces in Life, Look, Esquire, and the Saturday Evening Post, among many others, the work of Bill Heinz was unforgettable.
Heinz’s inclusion in the century collection helped spark a revival of interest in the writer. The revival reached a peak in 2014, when Heinz, who died at age 93 in 2007, would have turned 100. In March, the prestigious Library of America in New York published a collection of Heinz’s best sportswriting called “The Top of His Game.” In June, he was posthumously inducted into the inaugural class of PEN New England Sports Writers Hall of Fame at Fenway Park.
But the best honor her father ever got, Gayl Heinz says, might have been a few simple words of praise from his editor at The Sun, the New York newspaper for which he wrote a daily column. Heinz was still a young man, in his early 30s, when he wrote a piece called “Death of a Racehorse,” published in July 1949, which was instantly recognized as a masterful example of deadline journalism.
“Son, don’t ever let anyone tell you how to write,” the editor told him.
No one dared. From his apprenticeship during the war to his poignant stories of heroes and also-rans in baseball, boxing, and other forms of professional competition, Heinz was years ahead of the “new journalism” of the 1960s and ’70s.
Today, in the era of “long-form” writing on the Internet, Glenn Stout, the longtime editor of the “Best American Sportswriting” yearly anthology, routinely encourages younger writers to familiarize themselves with Heinz’s work.
“Bill wrote nonfiction for newspapers, but he gave it the attention of a novelist,” says Stout, the author of “Red Sox Century” and “Fenway 1912.” “Every sentence is crafted. A lot of journalists kind of accept that they’re doing something lesser than fiction or poetry, but I don’t think Bill Heinz did.”
Gayl Heinz’s basement den in Amesbury is outfitted as something of a shrine to her father’s work. The walls along the staircase are lined with photos of Vince Lombardi, with whom Heinz wrote “Run to Daylight!” in 1969, and Rocky Marciano, for whom he ghost-wrote a piece called “How It Feels to Be the Champ,” as well as the oversized banner that advertised Heinz’s column as The Sun’s biggest selling point.
Her father, Gayl Heinz says, loved to tell the story of the time he stepped off a curb in New York City and was nearly mowed down by a delivery truck. As it sped past, he looked up to see his own image flashing by.
Humility and loyalty to the story were Heinz’s stock in trade. After leaving the world of daily sportswriting — the Sun folded in 1950 – he wrote about anything that piqued his curiosity. He covered the civil rights march in Selma and wrote about a war hero’s return to the beach at Normandy. His meticulous Life magazine profile of a highly regarded surgeon led to a pseudonymous collaboration on the novel “M*A*S*H*,” which inspired the film and TV show.
“He wrote about everything from the first crocus blooming in Central Park to the birth of the first zebra at the Bronx Zoo,” says Gayl, who shares her home with her husband.
A great listener, Heinz had “a wonderful ear for music,” his daughter says. He applied that to the words he put on the page.
“He was a big classical music fan,” says Stout, who, like Heinz in his later years, lives in Vermont. “He talked about how important it was for him to get the opening chords right. From those chords, just like in a piece of music, that sets out the dimensions, the vocabulary, where that story can go. It was extraordinarily effective.”
But writing didn’t come easily for Heinz, says his daughter, a retired travel agent. “We lived with what he went through to write. It wasn’t a fun process. I remember having to be quiet, not having kids over.”
Yet her father was born for the profession. Too “scrawny” to be much of an athlete as a boy, he marveled at the “lumbering bodies of the athletes [spilling] out of their desks and chairs” in school, his daughter says. Later, when he earned the right to travel with the pros, he couldn’t believe his luck.
While he was writing the book with Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, he worked in a makeshift office in the family garage in Connecticut, which he’d walled off with cement blocks. Every inch of wall space in the office was covered in sheets of paper neatly diagrammed with the Xs and Os of football playbooks.
“That’s the way he did everything,” says Gayl Heinz. “He researched to the point that he was that person.”
Even after he’d received several annual awards for best magazine story, Heinz remained determined to keep himself out of the limelight. Once, discouraged by an uncharacteristic string of rejections, he went out to donate blood, as he often did.
When the nurse at the Red Cross thanked him for giving, he demurred.
“Don’t thank me,” he joked. “I’m just glad somebody wants something from me.”
Naturally, he got a story out of it.James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.