Examiner sports column 7 March 2008

March 21, 2008

A life less ordinary in monkey business

IN doing this job you meet plenty of people who say:
“I could do that. Drink coffee, talk rubbish, bash out a few… come on. I could do that. Easy.”

You meet a lot of people who say one of the lower primates could do this job, in fact, and some of the
people who say that, are themselves, proof of that proposition.

Anyway. This week we mourn the passing of a truly great columnist,
WC Heinz, who died recently in the States, aged 93.

Heinz was a sportswriter when
being a sportswriter was impossibly glamorous — in the New York City of the late forties, when it was a
matter of whiskey sours and late
suppers in Toots Shor’s and swapping yarns with Jack Dempsey.

And at that most glamorous time Heinz covered the most glamorous sports, boxing and baseball.

Good? He was so good that when Damon Runyon was asked to
recommend a writer, he scribbled on a restaurant napkin ‘WC Heinz very good’ — of course it was a napkin, no doubt in some uptown joint in the company of Harry the Horse and Nicely Nicely Johnson.

Just to reinforce the point, Runyon underlined Heinz’s name three times.

In addition, Ernest Hemingway said that the boxing novel Heinz wrote, The Professional, was the only good novel about a boxer he’d ever read.

More? Heinz wrote one of the most successful sports biographies of all times in the States, ‘Run To Daylight’ with legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

When the late David Halberstam compiled The Best American Sportswriting of the Century, he
included three Heinz articles. The most anyone else managed was two.

Heinz wasn’t a writer given to
hyperbole, or breathlessness, or
overstatement.

He didn’t overdo the drama; he
underwrote, if anything, and by that I mean no connection with the noble profession of insurance. He had served in World War Two, and appreciated the perspective that gave when it came to sports.

It also gave him a neat insight into war and people’s reaction to war; in the sixties he teamed up with a
medical doctor, Dr Richard
Hornberger, to write about surgeons in combat. The resultant book was MASH. Yes, that MASH.

When Heinz published The Professional he got fan letters, and polite man that he was, he responded. When one enthusiast praised him for his
restraint — that underwriting, again — this was Heinz’s response:

“The best fighters I have known have all had that — the ability to keep the fight moving at their distance and always directly in front of them,
pursuing their aim with a quiet
purpose with all kinds of hell breaking loose on all sides from the throats of amateurs.”

The lesson was well learned: that fan was Elmore Leonard, whose spare, unadorned descriptions and dialogue decorate the best thrillers you can read.

It’s unfair to dangle so much about Heinz without giving an example of his work, so here.

This is from a piece Heinz wrote in 1948. He was at the racetrack in New York, where Air Lift, a horse with a promising pedigree, making running in his first race. Disaster struck when the horse broke its leg in a hole on the track, with the inevitable result.

This is the end of the piece.

“The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled on his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

“‘Aw…,’ someone said. That was all they said.

“They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as
evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching.

“Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.”

Not bad. But that’s not the point here. The point is that at the time, Heinz was writing a column like this five days a week. There aren’t many higher primates who could manage that.

Runyon was right: Heinz — very good indeed.

Contact: michael.moynihan@examiner.ie

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