The first time I met W.C. “Bill” Heinz ’37 I told him that his column “Death of a Race Horse” had made me want to write better than I probably ever would. I read it for the first time in 1964, my freshman year of college, 15 years after Heinz had written the piece on deadline for the soon-to-be-defunct New York Sun. On that July day in 1949, Heinz had watched as a young colt named Air Lift—making his first racing start—stumbled on the track, breaking his leg.
Heinz pulls the reader in so close to the tragedy unfolding mere feet way that one can barely breathe.
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 then Catlett, with the hammer in his 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 two 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.
“Death of a Race Horse” is one of 38 columns and features compiled by Bill Littlefield, longtime host of NPR’s Only a Game, who knows great storytelling. This collection, which is being released on the centennial of Heinz’s birth, should reawaken interest in and love for one of our greatest sportswriters. Wilfred Charles Heinz (1915–2008) felt and observed deeply, but he always left space for the reader to feel too. Here is Babe Ruth, sick with the cancer that will soon take his life, pulling on his uniform for the final time at Yankee Stadium.
The Babe started to undress. His friends helped him. They hung up his clothes and helped him into the parts of his uniform. When he had them on he sat down again to put on his spiked shoes, and when he did this the photographers who had followed him moved in. They took pictures of him in uniform putting on his shoes, for this would be the last time….The Babe took a step and started slowly up the steps. He walked out into the flashing of flashbulbs, into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any other man.
In 1991 I visited Heinz at his hillside home in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived with his wife Betty Bailey Heinz ’35. I told him about his influence on my life; later I would find out that other writers, Littlefield included, had made similar pilgrimages and had expressed similar sentiments.
Gracious and generous, he showed me his writing scrapbooks, each of his columns neatly pasted in place, and as he turned the pages, he spoke about his life and work, a master class in a Vermont living room.
Heinz compared writing to boxing. “You set the reader up,” he said, “you feint, you jab, you bob and weave, you bring them in close, then when you are ready, you hit and hit hard.” He said never waste a word; a good writer should strip each sentence to its core.
Heinz once told Sports Illustrated that writing for him was “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.”
Bill Littlefield and the Library of America have given readers a 600-page gem of a book, filled with stories and columns whose words are balanced and solid, a stone wall built without mortar. We are afforded another chance to see America through the eyes of one of the most acute observers of his generation. And when any of us reads a story that takes our breath away, I lay odds that the writer once read “Death of a Race Horse” or “Brownsville Bum” or “The Fighter’s Wife” and thought, “If only I could do that….”
Mel Allen is the editor of Yankee Magazine and a pretty darn good writer himself.