May 8, 2008


The cult of 'Death of a Racehorse' (Gare Joyce, 3/03/08, ESPN)

"Death of a Racehorse" is not even a thousand words long, but any abridged version insults it. Heinz kept it short, what turned out to be a favor to a couple of generations of sportswriters who tried to memorize it over the years. And in keeping it short, Heinz probably made it easier for a couple of his other longer stories to appear alongside it in the "Best American Sports Writing of the Century," a collection edited by David Halberstam. Heinz was the only writer that Halberstam rated as deserving three entries in the anthology.

I first read "Death of a Racehorse" as a college student. I spotted a copy of his collection, "American Mirror: A distinguished writer on courage," in a used-book store. I didn't recognize his name, but I did recognize the photo of Graziano standing over a thoroughly knocked-out Johnny Greco, and I did recognize the name of the fellow who offered the foreword, Red Smith, The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize winner. On those two counts, I figured the book was worth a the risk of a couple of bucks.

Truth be told, it was Smith's foreword that I wanted to read. He had died not long before my purchase. "My admiration for his work is older than our friendship, which can be dated only with carbon 14," Smith wrote.

I figured the praise Smith heaped on Heinz owed more to that friendship than the quality of the friend's work. Not even close. If the stories in "American Mirror" had been written by a complete stranger and dropped on Smith's desk, he'd have blushed.

A couple of years back, I set about re-reading "American Mirror" and only then did I think about the title. When I bought the book, one of my life's great bargains, I presumed that it was your basic metaphor: the author holding up a mirror to look at brave men. That, it turned out, was too obvious, too easy. No, what Heinz did was a little more complex: He handed the mirror to others and captured them looking in it.

When Heinz handed the mirror to Graziano, the fighter saw himself as a nervous wreck in the hours before Tony Zale nearly punched a hole in him. When put the mirror in the hands of Jenkins, a hard-living boxer realized that the recklessness that made him a champion also made himself old before his time.

When he put the mirror under the nose of Bummy Davis, there was not a wisp of fog because the journeyman pug had died the way he lived, "willing to go the distance for whatever he believed or whatever he was." In Davis' unfortunate case, that meant he died throwing his signature hook against a guy with a gun.

Heinz was at his best with brave men, whether it was in the ring or on the front lines. If he had never covered a fight or a game or a race, he would have left a tidy archive of great reporting about war and civil rights. Even without his newspaper and magazine work, he left a couple of pretty big marks in the book world. He was one of the co-writers of "M*A*S*H*," not the movie or the TV series, but the book that started the ball rolling. He also wrote a novel, "The Professional," that Hemingway praised as "the only good novel about a fighter."

That would be something you could dine out on. W.C. Heinz deserved more. The Red Smith Award is to sportswriters something like the Oscar for lifetime achievement for actors. The Associated Press Sports Editors hand it out to those who have made "major contributions to sports journalism." They gave the first one to Red Smith himself. In a ridiculous oversight over a couple of decades, the APSE never got around to handing one out to his good friend Bill Heinz. So a couple of years ago, a bunch of sportswriters put together a petition lobbying the APSE to give the award to a writer who had Smith's seal of approval, to a friend of the ol' redhead. The group was something like the cult of "Death of a Racehorse."

Death of a Racehorse (WC Heinz, 1949, NY Sun)
They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica, two year olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for the purse of four thousand dollars. They were moving slowly down the backstretch toward the gate, some of the cantering, others walking, and in the press box they had stopped working on the kidding to watch, most of them interested in one horse.

"Air Lift," Jim Roach said. "Full brother of Assault."

Assault, who won the triple crown ... making this one too, by Bold Venture, himself a Derby winner, out of Igual, herself by the great Equipoise ... Great names in the breeding line ... and now the little guy making his first start, perhaps the start of another great career.

They were off well, although Air Lift was fifth. They were moving toward the first turn, and now Air Lift was fourth. They were going into the turn, and now Air Lift was starting to go, third perhaps, when suddenly he slowed, a horse stopping, and below in the stands you could hear a sudden cry, as the rest left him, still trying to run but limping, his jockey -- Dave Gorman -- half falling, half sliding off.

"He broke a leg!" somebody, holding binoculars to his eyes, shouted in the press box. "He broke a leg!" [...]

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 his eyes. The colt stood still and then 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 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 rused 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.

-OBIT: W.C. Heinz, 93; He Broke New Ground in Journalism (Matt Schudel, 3/05/08, Washington Post)
-TRIBUTE: Clack-Clang-Z-z-z-i-i-i-p: Music From a Maestro (DAVE ANDERSON, 3/02/08, NY Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2008 8:55 AM

Do they still shoot them on the track like that? I bet not.

Posted by: Twn at May 8, 2008 10:40 AM