By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
In a spring filled with firsts for almost all of us, something happened to me in the sports world that had never happened before in my entire life.
Sports Illustrated came out with an issue, and I didn’t read it.
It was quite a streak, as you can imagine. The first issue came out on August 16, 1954. The first cover was of Eddie Mathews at the plate for the Milwaukee Brewers in County Stadium. It’s worth several hundred dollars now.
Henry Luce already owned Time and Life magazines, and saw a market opening for a sports magazine. There was some resistance within the company about the idea, but Luce won the argument and Volume 1, Number 1 made it to the newsstands.
My parents bought an early copy, and decided to buy a subscription. In fact, my father was offered the chance to buy a lifetime subscription at the time for something like $100. He passed on it, and years later he laughed about that decision every time he wrote a renewal check.
I came along a relatively short time after the publication’s debut, so I never remember a time when Sports Illustrated didn’t show up in our mailbox on Friday. In the 1950s, the magazine was geared more for the wealthy, with articles popping up on such topics on polo, bridge and sailing. We didn’t fit that demographic, but apparently there were enough articles of interest to keep the magazine coming. Still, the subject matter didn’t lead itself to mass appeal, and sales weren’t too good.
That all changed in the 1960s, when Andre Laguerre took over as editor. The former Time magazine executive revamped the format, emphasizing photographs – in other words, putting the “Illustrated” into Sports Illustrated. Laguerre also was smart enough to jump on the NFL bandwagon at the right time.
It all worked. Sports Illustrated soon attracted the best writers in the business, who were given the time, money (the expense accounts apparently were legendary back then) and literary license to produce great stories. And they did, issue after issue. Consider some of the names: Frank Deford, Roy Blount Jr., Robert Creamer, Ron Fimrite, Dan Jenkins, Curry Kirkpatrick, Mark Kram, Tex Maule, William Nack, Rick Reilly, Gary Smith, Ralph Wiley and Paul Zimmerman. The sports department of newspaper used to be called “the Toy Department,” but that didn’t apply to that group. The accompanying photos were always terrific too.
Along the way, SI’s editors figured out a way to fill one of the dull weeks between the end of the football season and the beginning of baseball season (hockey and basketball weren’t so popular back in the 60s, relatively speaking). It was called the swimsuit issue and it made millions and millions of dollars. If you want the full story about the magazine’s glory days, go find a used copy of “The Franchise” by Michael MacCambridge. It’s terrific.
As a kid interested in sports journalism, I found that Sports Illustrated was something of a textbook on good writing. I read every issue with enthusiasm. When college arrived, I bought my own subscription. When I moved out of my parents’ house, Sports Illustrated came along with me – and followed me to a few different addresses over the years.
One time when I worked for the Sabres in 1990, a fact-checker from the magazine called me for some information. After he identified himself, I said, “Sports Illustrated? The conscience of the sports world?” That was the way I felt.
Eventually, though, the landscape that had allowed Sports Illustrated to thrive started to change. The rise of the internet meant that people didn’t have to wait until Friday to read more about their favorite event. Plenty of information was available already – and those people might have seen the event with their own eyes anyway because of the ever-increasing amount of televised sports that was/is available.
Still, I persisted in receiving it, week after week. But the magazine bounced through a few owners in the last couple of years. The editorial focus of SI changed rapidly, and I found myself less anxious to read it each Friday. Soon, I didn’t have to do so, as the magazine’s publishing schedule switched to every two weeks.
Last October, the new owners fired 40 employees, including the entire copy editing staff. For a magazine that was always immaculate, this was a giant step backwards. In November, the company announced it would become a monthly. Four special editions and a swimsuit edition would round out the yearly publishing total to 17.
That did it. I was out of there. It was remarkably easy to cut the cord, since I didn’t get the usual stream of renewal notices that was a trademark of subscribing to a Time-Life publication.
Sixty-four years was a pretty good run as these things go. Even so, the Sports Illustrated I knew and loved passed away a while ago. I’ll miss that old friend.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)