The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz

 Edited by Bill Littlefield, The Library of America

In 1946 Damon Runyon, the writer and newspaperman, was in the hospital dying of throat cancer. A friend asked him who he thought was the best young sportswriter in New York. Runyon could not speak but scrawled “W.C. Heinz” on a napkin and underlined it three times.

Wilfred Charles Heinz (1915- 2008) was a novelist, war correspondent and regarded by many of his contemporaries as the best sportswriter of his era. Unlike the renowned sportswriter of the previous generation, Grantland Rice, Heinz’s work has not aged. And like another celebrated predecessor, Ring Lardner, he was an exceptional storyteller. Heinz’s friend Ernest Hemingway called his 1958 novel The Professional “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter.”

Now comes a collection of Heinz’s best sports stories, titled The Top of His Game. Edited by NPR’s Only a Game host Bill Littlefield, the book includes many of the elegant profiles for which Heinz was best known. Among them is “The Smallest Titan of Them All,” about the jockey Eddie Arcaro, and “The Ghost of the Gridiron,” a profile of Harold Edward “Red” Grange, one of the greatest football players of the 1920s. All feature the concise, lucid writing, brilliant observations and literary touch that defined Heinz’s work. Here is his opening to “Brownsville Bum,” a profile of a Brooklyn club boxer named Al “Bummy” Davis who was killed in a candy store holdup: “It’s a funny thing about people. People will hate a guy all his life for what he is, but the minute he dies for it, they make him out a hero and they go around saying that maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all, because he sure was willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was.” Littlefield says that “Brownsville Bum,” a favorite of journalism teachers for decades, “is no more a sports story than Moby-Dick is an account of a fishing trip.”

Heinz would be remembered by the sports world if only for one book, Run to Daylight, a collaboration with Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. It recounts, through Lombardi’s voice, the team’s championship season in 1962. The book became the first bestseller about pro football and established the sport as a viable literary subject. Among his four novels, Heinz co-wrote with H. Richard Hornberger a 1968 bestseller that was far afield of sports. Under the pseudonym Richard Hooker, the two produced the bawdy and irreverent portrait of wartime medical units M*A*S*H. It was the genesis for Robert Altman’s landmark 1970 film and, later, the hugely popular television series.

The Top of His Game also collects several of Heinz’s best columns for the New York Sun. In “Down Memory Lane With the Babe,” he describes a father bringing his son to meet a stooped, cancer-ridden old man. “The small boy seemed confused. He was right next to the Babe, and the Babe bent down and took the small boy’s hand almost at the same time as he looked away to drop the hand. ‘There,’ the man said, pulling the small boy back. ‘Now you met Babe Ruth.’ ” No other writer so poignantly captured the human side of sports.


Originally published in the June 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.