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W.C. Heinz, 93; He Broke New Ground in Journalism

W.C. Heinz was best known for his sports profiles. He also co-wrote the novel
W.C. Heinz was best known for his sports profiles. He also co-wrote the novel "MASH." (By Tim Roske -- Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

W.C. Heinz, who wrote about medicine, civil rights and war but is best remembered for his smoothly finished prose portraits from the world of sports, died Feb. 27 at an assisted-living facility in Bennington, Vt. He was 93 and had had a series of strokes in recent years.

During his quietly influential career, Mr. Heinz covered World War II and wrote elegant sports columns and magazine stories that left an indelible mark on the generation that created the "New Journalism" of the 1960s.

He also published four novels, including one under the pseudonym Richard Hooker. That 1968 book, a collaboration with a Maine surgeon, H. Richard Hornberger, was called "MASH" and led to the hit movie and television series.

Mr. Heinz had another bestseller, in 1963 with "Run to Daylight!," which follows the near-perfect 1962 NFL championship season of the Green Bay Packers. The book, written in Vince Lombardi's first-person voice, helped create the legend surrounding the tough, demanding football coach.

David Maraniss, an author and Washington Post writer, devotes a chapter of "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi" to Mr. Heinz's work on the book. When the taciturn Lombardi provided little information about anything except football, Mr. Heinz turned to the coach's wife, Marie Lombardi, for biographical facts and for the book's catchy title.

Whether he was writing a book or a newspaper story, Mr. Heinz's tools consisted of a mechanical pencil and pocket-sized 10-cent notebooks, which he filled with meticulous notes. But he could also work without notes, recreating dialogue from memory.

More than most sportswriters, he focused on the personalities and pathos of athletes and coaches rather than the outcome of events. He sharpened his skills during two years as a war correspondent in Europe, covering the D-Day invasion for the New York Sun.

"He learned to strip the artifice from his work," Jeff MacGregor wrote in a 2000 profile of Mr. Heinz in Sports Illustrated. "His style emerged, a refined transparence in which the I largely disappeared, and what the reader got was pure story."

Wilfred Charles Heinz was born Jan. 11, 1915, in Mount Vernon, N.Y. In 1932, his parents gave him an anthology of sports writing and a portable Remington typewriter, on which he wrote for the rest of his life.

He was sports editor of the newspaper at Middlebury College in Vermont and, after graduating, became a $15-a-week messenger at the Sun. He covered fires, meetings and crime before going abroad in World War II.

When he returned in 1945, he asked to write about sports, joining an illustrious group of New York writers that included Grantland Rice, Jimmy Cannon, Frank Graham, Paul Gallico and a close friend, Red Smith.

Mr. Heinz wrote about many sports, but his favorites were boxing and horse racing. An oft-reprinted 1949 column, "The Death of a Racehorse," is a straightforward but achingly sad account of a promising horse -- the son and brother of Kentucky Derby winners -- being put to death after breaking a leg in its first race.

When the New York Sun folded in January 1950, Mr. Heinz had offers from other papers, but he chose to become a freelance writer, concentrating on magazine stories and books. In 1951, he wrote perhaps his most famous story, "Brownsville Bum," about the tragic life of Brooklyn boxer Al "Bummy" Davis, who "fought guns with only his left hook and died lying in the rain."

He wrote about hard-luck baseball player Pete Reiser, jockeys, football star Red Grange and, most memorably, boxers.

In a 1952 profile, "So Long, Rock," Mr. Heinz described how Rocky Graziano won the middleweight title in a bloody brawl with Tony Zale in 1947:

"Between the fourth and fifth rounds, [trainer] Frank Percoco took the hard edge of a quarter and, pressing with it between his fingers, broke the skin of the swelling over the right eye. When the blood came out the swelling came down enough for the lid to pull up, and the Rock could see. For two bits they won the middleweight title and made maybe $250,000 and it was the beginning of what would follow."

Mr. Heinz's first novel, "The Professional" (1958), about a boxer and his trainer, was praised by Ernest Hemingway. After writing a profile of a surgeon for Life magazine, Mr. Heinz published a novel, "The Surgeon" (1963). He wrote another medical novel, "Emergency," in 1974.

He covered the Selma civil rights marches for Look magazine in the 1960s and edited books on boxing. But his writings on sports and war continue to draw younger readers and are regarded as models of the craft.

In a foreword to a 2001 collection of Mr. Heinz's writing, "What a Time It Was," David Halberstam wrote: "Bill Heinz helped lead two generations of reporters in breaking out of the existing and very rigid codes of journalism, changing the form itself, and making it more natural, at the same time constantly expanding the possibilities of what a reporter could do."

Mr. Heinz's wife of 61 years, Elizabeth "Betty" Heinz, died in 2002.

A 16-year-old daughter, Barbara, died in 1964 of a virulent infection.

Survivors include a daughter, Gayl Heinz, of Amesbury, Mass., and a granddaughter.

In MacGregor's 2000 Sports Illustrated profile, Mr. Heinz defined his approach to writing: "It's like building a stone wall without mortar. You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they're balanced and solid."

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