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The unlikely link between M*A*S*H* and a sportswriting masterpiece

WC Heinz’s work is treated with a reverence normally reserved for Hemingway.

The Top of His Game, a collection of Heinz's best sportswriting, was published in 2015.
The Top of His Game, a collection of Heinz's best sportswriting, was published in 2015.

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 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.

Eleven years ago this week, Wilfred Charles Heinz — better known as WC — died at the age of 93 in Bennington, Vermont.

No flags were lowered to half mast at his passing, no moments of silence observed. Indeed, most of the people who heard about his death were likely surprised he was still alive.

It didn’t help that Heinz outlived most of the publications he wrote for, namely The Sun (New York) and SPORT magazine, or that his most commercially successful work, MASH — the book that became the movie and later the TV series M*A*S*H* — was written in collaboration with Dr. H. Richard Hornberger under the pen name of Richard Hooker.

While with The Sun, Heinz was sent to Europe to cover the second world war, before returning to New York where he covered, among other things, boxing and horse racing in a column called The Sports Scene.

Seventy years ago, at a run-of-the-mill race meeting on a wet Wednesday afternoon at Jamaica Race Course in Queens, New York, Heinz would draw on his time as a war correspondent to turn an injury sustained during the sixth race on the card, a five-and-a-half furlong flat contest that went off at 3.54pm, into one what is widely regarded as of the great pieces of sportswriting.

In fact, it may be the greatest because it was described by Jeff MacGregor of Sports Illustrated as the “Gettysburg Address of sportswriting. A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it.”

ESPN’s Gare Joyce went even further, noting that Death of a Racehorse was a “short story that would stand up with those knocked out by the acknowledged American master of the form, Ernest Hemingway.”

While NPR’s Bill Littlefield called it a “brilliantly understated demonstration of a writer’s determination to stay out of the way of a story that will be powerful and moving if he can tell it without fanfare. If he read the Sun that morning, Hemingway smiled.”

High praise indeed.

At just over 950 words, the genius of Death of a Racehorse might be the absence of the 2,000 Heinz chose not to include.

There are short quotes scattered throughout the piece but, for the most part, Heinz cares more about what is being said rather than who is saying it:

“It’s a funny thing,” Catlett said. “All the cripples that go out, they never break a leg. It always happens to a good-legged horse.”

A man, gray-haired and rather stout, wearing brown slacks and a blue shirt, walked up.

“Then I better not send for the wagon yet?” the man said.

“No,” Catlett said. “Of course, you might just as well. Max Hirsch may say no, but I doubt it.”

“I don’t know,” the man said.

“There’d be time in the morning,” Catlett said.

“But in this hot weather–” the man said.

It’s an approach to attribution that that would cause most sub-editors to lay awake at night, covered in cold sweat, but the exchange conveys the panic, the hopelessness, and the inevitability of what is to come in fewer than 100 words.

Likewise, many writers would have padded the piece with details of Air Lift’s short life to raise the emotional stakes for the reader and increase the sense of devastation.

Not so Heinz who, in a single 56-word paragraph lacking full sentences, tells us more about the racehorse Air Lift could have become than any interview with an owner, trainer, or jockey would have accomplished:

“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.

Of the race itself, Heinz committed just 76 words to print, less than 10% of his column.

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.

Despite the sparseness of his prose, Heinz leaves the reader in no doubt as to the devastation unfolding in Queens.

Both as a war correspondent, and later in writing MASH, you could sense Heinz was all too familiar with reflecting on pointless death and the world’s rather irritating habit of carrying on regardless.

In a 1949 article for True magazine called The Morning They Shot the Spies, Heinz describing the execution of three Germans who had infiltrated American lines in World War II:

I looked at the ground, frost-white, the grass tufts frozen, the soil hard and uneven. I wondered if it is better to die on a warm, bright day among friends, or on a day when even the weather is your enemy. I turned around and looked down into the valley. The mist still hung in the valley, but it was starting to take on a brassy tint from the sun beginning to work through it. I could make out three white farm buildings on the valley floor, a little yellowed now from the weak sunlight, and I could envision this, in the spring a pleasant valley. This view I see now, I said to myself, will be the last thing their eyes will ever see.

In Death of a Racehorse, just before Air Lift’s all too brief life comes to an end, Heinz sets an equally poignant scene:

They had sponged off the colt, after they had given him the shot to deaden the pain, and now he stood, feeding quietly from some hay they had placed at his feet. In the distance you could hear the roar of the crowd in the grandstand, but beyond it and above it you could hear thunder and see the occasional flash of lightning.

When Catlett came back the next time he was hurrying, nodding his head and waving his hands. Now the thunder was louder, the flashes of lightning brighter, and now rain was starting to fall.

“All right,” he said, shouting to Gilman. “Max Hirsch talked to Mr. Kleberg. We’ve got the confirmation.”

What you’ll notice from the extracts is that, throughout the piece, Heinz avoids metaphor and simile almost completely. Each paragraph contains just the reporting of facts; a Greek tragedy masquerading as a news report.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Death of a Racehorse ends as matter-of-factly as it begins with Heinz all too familiar with the reality that, whether at war or on a racecourse, death has as many practicalities as much as it does tragedy.

 ”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.

– You can read Death of a Racehorse in full here.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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