W. C. Heinz believed that only one of his pieces of daily journalism “deserved an afterlife.” “Death of a Racehorse” was written in an hour, as it happened, on Wednesday afternoon, July 27, 1949. The race was a sprint, and a horse named Air Lift was the second favorite in the mutuel pools, but probably the horse everyone was looking at. He was the “son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.” Assault had won the Triple Crown in 1946. It was a short race, a one-turn sprint. On that turn, Air Lift bobbled—maybe he stepped in a hole—and broke his left front ankle. The scene Heinz set, the way the horse’s death unfolded, the raw, live emotion of it all, is unmatched.
It may be his best—it may be one of the finest things to ever hit newsprint—but Heinz published a more revealing article in the January 7, 1961 issue of The Saturday Evening Post titled “The Twilight of Boxing.” It’s about the closing of Stillman’s Gym. Both are included here in The Top of His Game, a collection of Heinz’s best sportswriting published by the Library of America. Somehow I feel as if everything you need to know about this book is right there. If you’re not intrigued by a sportswriter so good that his timely work could be judged worth printing between hard covers on nice paper half a century on, well . . . you can take a horse to water. Move along.
“For a period of about five years,” wrote Heinz, “I visited Stillman’s on an average, I guess, of once a week. I went at first primarily to watch the fighters spar. Once you know a fighter’s style, though, there isn’t a great deal you can learn from his workouts. As much as anything, I kept going to the gym to listen to the talk and to witness the whole spectacle.”
Most ink-smudged sporting hacks would reserve the word “spectacle” for Friday night under the lights at the Garden, when there were tuxedos, public address systems, and the noise and intensity that comes only with a big crowd all focused on one thing. Stillman’s was just dirty towels, speedbags, and shoe black. Lou Stillman, who carried a gun while he was at work and had legally changed his name from Ingber, since everyone called him Mr. Stillman anyway and he didn’t like correcting them all day long, famously wouldn’t open the windows or clean the floors at the gym.
Heinz knew where the story really was.
“To Stillman’s,” wrote Heinz, “came thousands of fighters from every continent but Antarctica, among them every heavyweight champion from Jack Dempsey through Floyd Patterson.” To put that in historical perspective, Dempsey became the heavyweight champion in 1919, and Patterson had regained his title from Ingemar Johansson in June of 1960, just six months before the piece came out. (Patterson decked Johansson again in their rubber match a couple of months after publication.)
The story of boxing in the twentieth century had been, up until that point, the story of guys who had lockers at Stillman’s. The end of Stillman’s was the end of an age. Heinz runs us through the numbers: “In 1945 exactly 547,558 persons paid $2,263,259 to attend forty-three boxing shows in Madison Square Garden, and in 1959 there was a total of only 59,558 persons paying $123,699 at twenty-four shows.” The gym, Heinz assured his readers, was dying a natural death.
For a guy who made his rent typing about the fights, it must have rung a pretty heavy bell. Basically, if you think about it, Heinz had been assigned the story of his own house burning down. It must have hurt like hell.
After college, Heinz got a job at The New York Sun, and worked his way up to the city desk. In 1943, the paper sent him to Europe as a war correspondent, and when he returned to New York in 1945, he stood in front of his editor’s desk—you can just smell the cigars, the ink, you know there’s whiskey in the desk drawer—and was given a vacation, a thousand-dollar bonus, and a plum new assignment in Washington. He took the time off and the money, but he turned down Washington. “Covering the war,” he said to his editor, “where the material was so dramatic, I think I started to learn how to write. I want to continue to learn, and writing sports, where men are in contest, if not in conflict, and where you can come to know them, one can grow as a writer better than anywhere else on the paper.”
He wrote human interest features every day until 1950, when the Sun folded. After that, as a freelancer, his pieces got longer and looser.
When he started on his beat, the world, especially the sporting world in New York, basically was a Damon Runyon set full of wide ties, thick accents, and lots of hats. One of my favorite pieces out of The New York Sun years is called “Beau Jack Is a Good Customer,” and in it, the prizefighter sits on a stool and puts in an impressive array of orders for hats. One of the other newspapermen in the dressing room asks how he feels, and Beau Jack answers “Ah feel fine. Ah’m buy-in hats.”
Heinz was on the job as the “natural death” he wrote about at Stillman’s changed the way America viewed sports, and which sports they were interested in. In 1979, he published a book titled Once They Heard the Cheers in which he went back and wrote slow-moving, thoughtful pieces about some of the athletes he’d covered, now that they were in retirement.
He visits the former Yankee pitcher Joe Page at his Rocky Lodge, and they sit in a deserted dining room, chairs stacked against the wall, with Page’s son and one of his friends. While the old guys talk about DiMaggio and Yogi Berra (“He had great wrists, so he could wait on the pitch. That’s why he could get around on the breaking stuff, and even reach those bad balls.”), the two teenagers watch the Washington Redskins play the Minnesota Vikings on television.
It played into Heinz’s sense of decency, his sympathetic nature, to revisit the heroes. It rubbed him wrong that the journalist’s job was to foster a bit of association and trust, “even a friendship,” and then move along.
Writing about visiting Joe Page, years after his last pitch for the Yankees, Heinz recalls in a conversation with his friend Skipper Lofting that Page had said that he was jinxing him.
“I guess you couldn’t write about losing in those days,” Skipper said.
“Only in literature,” I said.
Heinz loved the losers. He loved the part about sports that wasn’t about the sports, but rather surrounded it, the children, the wives, the atmosphere. As one reads through The Top of His Game, one cannot help but be struck be how little of it happens on the field. It’s all about sports, of course, but in “The Rough and Tumble Life,” for instance, which chronicles an evening spent with the rodeo champ Jim Tescher, actual real-time riding of a bronc takes three paragraphs—not even a full page. The story is about the whole world of Jim Tescher, the blue jeans and the ranch work, the horses and the cowboys who aren’t wearing a costume. That said, the bit about Tescher riding in the ring is as intense and tightly focused as any sportswriting I’ve ever read.
At that moment the hind feet hit and he had his spurs back and he was all right. He was in good shape again, the rein taut in his left hand, his right arm out for balance, his spurs forward again. The horse was ducking to the right now, instead of making the wide circle he had expected, and he knew his lick wasn’t as full-stroking as it should be but at least he was in time with the horse.
You can see why Hemingway liked him.
In high school, Heinz sat in the back of class, idolizing the football players who “made their desks seem small, and the books seemed small in their hands, and at the end of the class, when we all stood up and walked out, they towered not only above the rest of us but above the teacher. They seemed to me to be men, and as we all walked out of the class I felt that they could walk right out of the school and be men out there in the world too.”
Heinz made great copy out of what happened when they did walk out into the world. He wrote with a special poise about all the triumphs, but especially the falls, the disillusionment, the missteps, and the horrible luck and the flashes of temper that led to retirement or even death. He wrote about men trying, sometimes pulling it off, sometimes not, always still just being men in contest.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 2, on page 77
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