Lover of the Fancy

Early C20th American culture and dissent

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


In those vibrant postwar decades when print was king, W. C. Heinz was the byline to watch for. A pioneer of the long-form sports story, Heinz wrote with a freshness of perception, a gift for characterization, and a finely tuned ear for dialogue, creating a style that has influenced generations of journalists. His profiles of the top athletes of his day – boxers, baseball players, gridiron legends, hockey stars, jockeys, and rodeo riders – are classics of the form, as immediate and affecting today as when first written. Jimmy Breslin called his account of the brief and bloody life of Al “Bummy” Davis, a Brooklyn street tough who became welterweight champion of the world only to die, at age twenty-five, defending himself during a barroom holdup, “the greatest magazine sports story I’ve ever read, bar none.” His celebrated piece on the Dodgers’ Pete Reiser, a reckless outfielder who would have made the Hall of Fame had he resisted the urge to catch the uncatchable, is a comic yet inspiring illustration of the maxim “character = fate.” And the many late-life memoirs he wrote for his book Once They Heard the Cheers – including portraits of jockey Eddie Arcaro, pitcher Joe Page, Packer Willie Davis, and Heinz’s signature subject, Rocky Graziano – are nothing less than mini-masterpieces of the biographer’s art.

“Heinz had it all,” says David Maraniss of The Washington Post, “a deep understanding of human nature, a wonderful sense of humor, and a writing style so clean and clear that he makes the difficult seem easy, just the way a great athlete does.” Here – in thirty-eight timeless pieces, chosen and introduced by NPR’s Bill Littlefield – is an American master at the top of his game. The volume also contains, as an appendix, postscripts Heinz published in books and magazines between 1979 and 2000, offering reflections and updates for seven of the stories.

Hardback, 624pp

Library of America, 2015
ISBN 9781598533729


BILL LITTLEFIELD has hosted National Public Radio’s weekly sports magazine, “Only A Game,” since 1993 and has written commentaries for NPR and Boston’s WBUR-FM for over thirty years. He is the author of seven books, including the novels Prospect and The Circus in the Woods and the recent collection of sports verse Take Me Out. In 2001 he met W. C. Heinz and they became friends, for which he has been grateful ever since.