W.C. Heinz was a sportswriter in title only. He wrote about sports, but not in the manner of many of his contemporaries during the 1940s and ’50s. His interest was not in the games themselves. Heinz believed the stories that mattered were found in the men he covered – the boxers, ballplayers and assorted characters that surrounded them. Uncovering aspects of human nature – what motivated these individuals – is what he found compelling. With his minimalist prose, wit and keen observations, Heinz changed the manner in which serious newsmen approached their craft. He was among the first sportswriters – first journalists, really - to understand the medium’s potential for storytelling.
His body of work was a precursor of New Journalism. Heinz wrote revealing profiles and insightful features, and did so with a humanist bent. Like many great writers, evident in his writing was a firm grasp of human frailty, and few were as adept at humanizing their subjects. This gift was best on display in “Death of a Racehorse,” perhaps his most famous work, though as the title alludes, his subject is a horse. Heinz turned the mundane business of the first race of a promising colt into a piece on the fleetingness of existence – on deadline. It is a beautiful and haunting piece of writing:
“They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt’s forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and the Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto 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 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.”
Read an excellent Sports Illustrated profile of Heinz here.