From The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz
On July 27, 1949, a promising, two-year-old thoroughbred named Air Lift ran his first and only race at the Jamaica Race Course in Queens, New York. As ESPN contributor Gare Joyce wrote a few years ago, “Air Lift would have left only a hoofprint on the heart of his owner when he broke down if W.C. Heinz had not witnessed it from a seat behind a typewriter on press row at a racetrack in Jamaica.” The resulting article, which Heinz wrote in an hour on deadline for the New York Sun, is considered by many journalists to be one of the best sports columns ever written. NPR’s Bill Littlefield recently agreed: “It is a brilliant and brilliantly understated demonstration of a writer’s determination to stay out of the way of a story that will be powerful and moving if he can tell it without fanfare. If he read the Sun that morning, Hemingway smiled.”
In later years Heinz himself regarded the column with an attitude approaching respect. In 1982, when the piece was reprinted in the American Mirror, he wrote a characteristically modest postscript:
Out of ten years of daily journalism, four of them covering sports, this is the sole piece that I feel deserves an afterlife, although I am not sure. Some months after the column ran, the editors of Cosmopolitan wrote to inform me that I had been chosen as one of “twelve leading American columnists,” each of us invited to grant reprint rights to his “favorite column” as part of a new monthly feature. As the $500 they were to pay me was more than four times what my impecunious employers were rewarding me for a whole week’s labor, this column went out in the return mail. When the reply came back no check fell out, the column rejected because they doubted “that women would understand it.”For more information about Heinz’s remarkable career as journalist and novelist, see the previous Story of the Week selection, “The Ghost of the Gridiron.”
* * *Free audio: This week’s selection is accompanied by a five-minute streaming audio version, read by Bill Littlefield, host of NPR’s Only a Game and the editor of The Library of America’s new collection of W. C. Heinz’s best sportswriting. If you don’t see the audio player below, you can listen to this selection at our SoundCloud page.
They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica, two-year-olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for a purse of $4,000. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!
This selection is used by permission. To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.
Heinz’s postscript is copyright © 1982 W. C. Heinz and is reprinted above by permission of Gayl Heinz.