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Heavyweight Champ

A Sports Writer At War


Elmore Leonard loves him. So does David Halberstam. Before they died, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Red Smith and A.J. Liebling did, too. The object of their affection? W.C. Heinz, who, at 87, has become a literary sensation at a time when many of his peers are years-deep in their graves. Best known for terse, unsentimental sports profiles and accounts -- boxing was his specialty -- Heinz resurfaced when Halberstam included him in a 1999 millennial anthology. A little over a year later, Sports Illustrated weighed in with a 7,000-word profile under the header, "Heavyweight Champion of the Word."

Heady stuff for a man who, several years earlier, had been referred to as deceased by a Boston newspaper. Last year, Heinz finally was inducted into the Sportswriters Hall of Fame during its annual celebration of those known for chronicling the famous.

Publisher Da Capo Press, among others, took notice of the newfound notoriety and quickly reached an agreement with Heinz to publish a collection of his sportswriting as well as his 1958 novel, The Professional. This year, Da Capo and Heinz have compiled his dispatches from World War II in yet another collection, When We Were One.

Heinz dragged his trusty 1932 Remington typewriter along when he traveled with GIs through Europe and aboard the USS Nevada. When We Were One includes numerous accounts written on assignment for The New York Sun in 1944.

The datelines read "With An American Armored Division On The Outskirts of Stolberg, Germany," and "Aboard A United States Battleship Off The Coast of France." These are not casual reports tossed together from Parisian bureaus. Even the later stories, written for Collier's, True and The Saturday Evening Post, carry the grit of a battle-hardened reporter.

Perhaps the most haunting is "The Morning They Shot the Spies," published in 1949. Heinz recalls a bleak morning, footprints frozen into the ground. Three Germans -- one a belligerent Nazi, one a Westphalian farmer caught up in the machinery of war, the last indistinguishable -- were to be shot by the Americans that day.

I will not look, I was saying to myself. I think I am afraid to look. It is so easy to turn away, I thought, and then I said that I had come to see this when I did not have to because I had wanted to study myself.

I heard then the M.P. officer at the right of the firing squad give a command, and I saw the first row of twelve men drop to one knee. I heard another command and saw the rifles come up and I heard the sound of the stocks rustling against the clothing, and then I heard the Nazi in the middle shouting, gutteral (sic) and loud in the morning, and I caught the end of his sentence.

" . . .Unser Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler!"

Much like his former neighbor and dear friend, the late sportswriter Red Smith, Heinz seems incapable of wasting a word or sentence. He describes his style as similar to building a stone wall without mortar: fitting and refitting phrases and words until everything balances just so. It is deceptively simple -- and all but impossible for most.

All of the great writing Heinz produced over the years, including the 1963 classic account of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, Run to Daylight!, and a collaboration with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, MASH (which spawned the movie and TV series), began with his war reporting.

It kept him from romanticizing anything. Most important, it prevented Heinz from ever putting sport at exaggerated levels of exaltation.

"They, the participants or observers who describe a sporting event as a war," Heinz wrote years later, "have never been in one."

It is this observation, and his strict allegiance to it, that makes Heinz such a treasure. You pick up When We Were One and you realize it's anything but combat duty. Then, in a couple of weeks, you tap your buddy on the shoulder, casually conveying your flirtation with the cognoscenti: "Hey, you ever heard of this guy W.C. Heinz. . ."

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