'The Top of His Game' — Collection of W.C. Heinz columns available now
DORSET, VT. >> From boxers to baseball players to football coaches to rodeo riders, W.C. Heinz wrote about them all.
"What I attempt to do is set the scene and put the characters in it and let them talk," Heinz once said when asked how he did what he did. "When I can do this with sufficient accuracy and sensitivity, the reader experiences the impression, very real, that he, himself, saw it and heard it, for he was there ."
"The stories he told were wonderful," said Bill Littlefield, the host of WBUR and NPR's "Only a Game," and the editor of "The Top of His Game: the Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz."
"Bill's writing had been really popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s," said Littlefield, who learned in the late 90s that Heinz's home in Dorset was just a short trip from his home base at WBUR in Boston. "I decided I had to go up and meet him."
Littlefield traveled to Dorset, which he described as "a very pleasant back of nowhere," and the two men struck up a friendship. When Heinz died at 93 in 2008 in Bennington, Littlefield said the world lost a great writer and many sports writers lost a great mentor.
"He was very appreciative of my work and he was incredibly supportive of a lot of writers," said Littlefield.
So it was no surprise that when he was asked to comb through Heinz's columns to assemble a compilation for The Library of America, Littlefield did not hesitate.
"There was no way I was going to say no. This has been a huge honor."
Littlefield was first approached by a literary agent, Andrew Blauner, about editing the book, but then received a call from Heinz's daughter, Gayl Bailey Heinz.
"Bill has such great sensitivity and care and he understands to my dad's work," she told the Reformer. "So I gave him all the stuff I have of dad's to go through, including two scrapbooks of his columns."
W.C. Heinz was a 1937 graduate of Middlebury College, where he met his wife, Elizabeth Bailey. Gayl was born in Greenwich, Conn., and lived with her parents in Stamford until they pulled up stakes to move to Dorset.
"In 1964, we lost my older sister, Barbara, to an undiagnosed disease," she said. "That spring we scattered her ashes in Dorset, where she had attended Camp Wynakee. "She turned 16 that summer. It was the summer of her life. Because of that, my parents felt it appropriate to leave behind her ashes in a camp in Dorset Hollow."
But a year later, when Gayl was just 14, her parents decided to move to Dorset.
W.C. Heinz began his writing career in 1937 as a copy boy for The New York Sun. From 1939 to 1943 he served as a general assignment reporter, when he began writing about World War II, eventually accompanying the 1st Army during its advance into Paris, through Beligium and then into Germany.
When Heinz returned to the States, he began writing "The Sport Scene," for the Sun. According to his obituary, Heinz was most drawn to boxing, "which was for him the most truthful sport, pitting man against man. He spent his afternoons at New York's Stillman's Gym absorbing the colorful personalities, language, and boxing styles."
He wrote stories of fighters including Rocky Marciano, Willie Pep, Ezzard Charles, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Rocky Graziano. When The New York Sun ceased publication in 1950, Heinz became a freelance writer for magazines including Argosy, True, Esquire, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, Sport, Look, and Life. During his career he also wrote about sports figures such as jockey Eddie Arcaro, Gordie Howe, Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, Stan Musial, and Joe DiMaggio.
He won a number of awards for his writing and received a letter from Ernest Hemingway after the release of "The Professional," which Hemingway wrote was "the only good novel about a fighter I've ever read, and an excellent first novel in its own right." Heinz also wrote "The Surgeon" and "Emergency" (1974), and, with Vince Lombardi, wrote "Run To Daylight!"
But what many people don't know is, Heinz was responsible for a book, which he co-wrote with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, that became one of the most iconic movies and television series of the 1970s — "M.A.S.H."
"The Top of His Game" is meant to be a definitive collection of Heinz's long-form sports stories and includes 38 columns, profiles and memoirs from his personal archive, including 18 pieces never collected during his lifetime.
One his most famous columns, "Death of a Racehorse," written in 1949, is still read today by aficionados of sports writing and in journalism classes around the country.
Gayl said more than anything, her father was immensely proud of his work.
"You work hard," Heinz once said, "and you take pride in your work. But it's the work, in the end, that is the important thing. not the person."
Gayl Bailey Heinz first attended Dorset Elementary in eighth grade before graduating to Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, from which she graduated. "It was quite a culture shock, moving from Connecticut," she said. "But I am very grateful that my parents made that choice."
In 2002, her father sold the house in Dorset and moved into an assisted living facility in Bennington, where he died in 2008 on Feb. 27 — the same day his daughter died in 1964 — at 2:27 a.m.
"Growing up, I was very aware of what my dad did for work, but I didn't read any of his stuff until I was older," said Gayl. "What touched me the most was his insight into human nature and the way he was able to read people so clearly and describe their surroundings and their dialogue."
Littlefield read "Death of a Racehorse" at Heinz's memorial service in 2008, but culling through his columns, Littlefield said one really stood out for him.
"There is this wonderful column about the fighter Beau Jack and the whole column was written while Bill was in the dressing room listening to a fellow selling hats to Jack," said Littlefield. "it's beautiful because the dialogue is so perfect."
When he was approached by The Library of America to edit the book, they asked for 400 pages.
"I said I can give you that in a half an hour," said Littlefield. After he presented his pickings, he was asked to add another 200 pages to the book.
"One after another, it's all fantastic stuff. The beautiful thing about writing this good is, you can hear Bill's voice while you read it."
"The Top of His Game: the Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz," is available on Amazon and at book stores around the country. For more information on Heinz, visit www.wcheinz.com. "Only a Game" can be heard on Saturday mornings on National Public Radio and by visiting http://onlyagame.wbur.org.
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