Sportswriters are not generally awarded the prestigious seats at writer’s guild meetings. But when the Library of America brings out a collection of your sportswriting, as they did for W.C. Heinz, the guild must make an exception. Imagine what Heinz’s reportorial eyes witnessed —  the right crosses of Rocky Marciano, the mercurial shouts of Vince Lombardi, and the sweet swing of Stan Musial (not to mention the Battle of the Bulge). Writing his best work at mid-20th century, Heinz bridged the golden era of sportswriters like Grantland Rice with the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe. His boxing novel (“The Professional”) was even praised by Ernest Hemingway.

Arguably, though, the most famous pages ever to be pulled from his Remington portable typewriter were composed on a very tight deadline one stormy July night at a horse racing park in Queens. The story narrated in “Death of a Racehorse” starts out so promising. [You can read it here or listen to it here].

Newspaper clipping DeathOfARacehorse

As a two year old with impeccable breeding named Air Lift was sparking conversation in the press box, the race begins.

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.

When Air Lift’s left front ankle breaks, we hear the anguish in the press box and watch the scrambling of first responders. We witness the tears of his jockey, the deliberation of the veterinarians, and the quiet assembly of about “twenty stable hands in dungarees and sweat-stained shirts, bare-headed or wearing old caps, standing around quietly….” We see the colt’s tossed head and blood running down his foreleg. We watch the shot given to numb the pain and the specially shaped gun attached to Air Lift’s forehead. 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.”

One of the defining characteristics of the New Journalism is the blending of fictional techniques with skilled reportage. Technically speaking, Heinz does not the adopt the role of what literary types call the “omniscient narrator” — he doesn’t take us into the minds of the characters he portrays. But I wonder if one of the things which makes this work so moving is the way Heinz seems to hover, god-like, over the park, helping us feel the immense tragedy unfolding. [Interestingly, in his “The Art of Fiction,” John Gardner noted that the “authorial-omniscient point of view,” a “ruler of the field for centuries,” declined among authors as doubts about the existence of God increased].  Heinz, if not “omniscient,” does display a watchful eye that shows a deep benevolence for creatures great and small.

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.

Elsewhere, the crowd is cheering on able-bodied horses. But Heinz does not allow us to move too quickly away from that pile of bricks. The effect, to me at least, is of one saying to Air Lift: “You mattered. You lived. You had great dignity. And while the rain fall of oblivion seeks to drown your memory, I will choose to remember you.”

As much as we would hope it is not so, the attention of our fellow humans is easily distracted toward the next race. Even those who show great promise are “like grass,” flourishing like the flowers of the field one moment, and then next moment gone, “and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). But what if there is one looking down who sees more than just broken flesh and a pile of bricks? What if every hair of our manes are numbered? What if our omniscient narrator, whom the apostle Peter called “the author of life,” watches over our comings and goings, “both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8)?