Monday, April 5, 2010

Walking into the SI vault

I never need an excuse to look through old issues of Sports Illustrated. My dad has every issue dating back to the early 1970s. Before anyone accuses him of being a hoarder and organizes an intervention or calls a reality TV producer, it should be noted that even if he did ever want to get rid of them, I've made it clear since about, oh, 1984, that he is not allowed to throw them away. I still regret that in 1986 I removed the covers off of dozens of magazines and used them as bedroom wallpaper. As comforting as it was to sit underneath the cover that ran after the Lakers won the 1985 NBA title, I now regret that all of those magazines look like they were vandalized. All of the magazines - the ones with covers and without - sit in their little cardboard magazine holders, waiting for me to page through them once or twice a year. One day we'll move them east, whenever they officially become my magazines.

About two years ago, SI put its entire collection online. It's surely one of the great inventions of the Internet era, although it might give people the idea that it's okay to throw away the actual old issues of the magazine. And that is still not okay.

But it has made it easier to walk through the past. For the last week I've been reading old issues for a baseball project. One of the stories was "written" by longtime Yankees general manager George Weiss, after he left the team following the 1960 season. He recaps his career with the team. He also talks about the future of the game and potential trouble spots for the sport. He laments that "there just aren't the number of 154-game players around that there used to be."

That sounds like the long-heard cries from people who say the game wasn't what it used to be, complaints that have been heard pretty much every decade since 1900. What makes Weiss's comment a bit odder is that he had a reputation for being a racist, an executive who was extremely reluctant to sign black ballplayers. The point being, in 1960 there were hundreds more "154-game players" available than there were in 1945. But you had to look past skin color to find them.

But Weiss had another reason for this supposed talent shortage, and it's one of those lines that drives home just how different the sport was 50 years ago. Weiss wrote, "For one thing, baseball gets a lot of competition from industry for a young man's abilities, and when a kid is offered a business job at a good starting salary, he thinks twice about gambling on taking three or four years to develop himself for a major league baseball career that is apt to be over at 35 anyway. All of this makes it harder for a ball club to line up good young players."

Competition from "industry." All those young ballplayers turning their backs on the Yankees to pursue a life in the coal mine, or a career with an accounting firm. Better salary, more stability, kick-ass benefits. Modern GMs don't realize how lucky they have it, not having to worry about killer competition from the business world.

I could look through old SI's all day, and I have on many occasions. One of the most enjoyable things is seeing how the magazine itself changed, nearly as dramatically as the salary demands of players. Today, and for the last two or three decades, the magazine focuses on the major sports. But in its early years, it had a broad definition of "sports," and actually focused on leisure (maybe old issues of SI influenced the creators of Trivial Pursuit; what else would explain all of those maddening questions on backgammon and cribbage under the sports and leisure category?). The old covers were barren. A single picture often ran with just a handful of words providing decoration. For instance, this cover from March 20, 1961. More leisure? The May 13, 1963 cover. A drawing. A girl, a bikini, a boat, and...dolphins?

But they've always focused on baseball.

Here's the cover for the 1961 baseball preview issue. It's a cool little picture and not quite as dull as many of the covers from that era. A look inside the issue reveals how the magazine's changed. There's a story on the Florida Derby. There's a story on the International Automobile Show in New York. There's a swimming story. And for god's sake, there's a story on bridge. It's actually a delightfully eclectic group of stories, although it's also perfectly understandable why the magazine's focus has shifted in the past decades. In a mainstream magazine in 2010, there might not be room for this type of writing:

"I suppose the reason why so many lawyers are good bridge players is that logic is the basis of their practice and, also, they are in close contact with people and are good judges of what behavior to expect."

Damn lawyers, and their bridge skills.

Finally in that issue there are the team previews, thorough accounts of each squad's strengths and weaknesses, info on management and the stadiums. Minnesota welcomed the Twins, freshly arrived after a move from Washington.

"Minnesota farmers and businessmen await the first home run of Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew. Minnesota housewives and schoolboys are ready to ooh when Minnesota's Jim Lemon strikes out and aah when he hits one over the wall." There was more oohing than aahing that year, unfortunately, as the state's lonely housewives and rambunctious schoolboys saw Lemon hit a mere 14 homers, a year after he awed the Washington fans with 38.

Every baseball preview since the magazine's inception is online, in the vault. And if you're dying to see a hard copy version of those stories, call my folks. Just don't be angry if the issue you're looking for is missing its cover.


Brock said...

I believe its 2,078 when grandma and i counted.. and counting of course.

Shawn Fury said...

You counted them?? Were you being punished?