Friday, January 23, 2015

The Ghost of the Gridiron

W. C. Heinz (1915–2008)
From The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz

Advertisement for the Shotwell Candy Company’s Red Grange Milk Chocolate Nut Bar, circa 1926. Image courtesy of the Wheaton College Archives.
W. C. Heinz, born 100 years ago this month, got his start in journalism covering World War II alongside the likes of Ernest Hemingway, who at one point had to borrow Heinz’s Remington portable when his own typewriter broke. (“It writes very well,” commented Hemingway. “Sure, but it writes a hell of a lot better for you than it does for me,” was Heinz’s riposte.) When Heinz returned from the war, the editors of The New York Sun planned to post him to the Washington bureau, but he preferred covering sports. “He wanted to write about more than wins and losses,” remarks John Schulian. “He wanted to dig deep into the games that transfixed the nation, and the men who played and coached them, and the forces that drove those men, sometimes to the limits of courage and nobility. In doing so he refined a style that employed the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, character—and would two decades later be hailed as the New Journalism.”

When the Sun closed its doors in 1950, Bill continued writing for magazines. In his introduction to the newly published collection The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz, Bill Littlefield notes a progression in Heinz’s career: “The columns had been brilliant gems. The magazine stories had given Heinz a greater opportunity to talk with the family, teammates, and acquaintances of the subjects, and with people who’d been at the few great events Bill had missed. Then, in the chapters of Once They Heard the Cheers, Heinz found the space to say what wouldn’t fit in the magazine stories.”

In a career of noteworthy achievements, two other successes stand out. Heinz’s novel The Professional, still beloved by readers, received a mere two responses from fans in the weeks after it was published. The first was from Hemingway himself, who cabled the publisher a few days after the book appeared, calling it “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.” The second was a letter by a fledgling novelist named Elmore Leonard, who would later recall “the first and only time in my life I wrote to the author to tell him how much I like his book.” Another notable achievement was his collaboration with H. Richard Hornberger on MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, which they published under the pseudonym Richard Hooker and which inspired, of course, the movie and the television series.

Among Heinz’s most enduring sports profiles is “The Ghost of the Gridiron,” a retrospective look, more than two decades later, at Harold “Red” Grange’s career and its extraordinary impact on the popularity of football. Despite the nostalgic tone that pervades the piece, both writer and subject were still relatively young men when it was published in 1958. Grange lived another thirty-three years, until the day after Super Bowl XXV in 1991, while Heinz had a full half-century ahead of him, dying in 2008 at the age of 93.

Note: Amelita Galli-Curci (1882–1963), mentioned on page 231, was an Italian opera singer who immigrated in 1916 to the United States and became a member of the Chicago Opera Company and, later, the Metropolitan Opera. She was one of the earliest singers to gain fame through the popularity of gramophone recordings.

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When I was ten years old I paid ten cents to see Red Grange run with a football. That was the year when, one afternoon a week, after school was out for the day, they used to show us movies in the auditorium, and we would all troop up there clutching our dimes, nickels, or pennies in our fists. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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