Friday, July 23, 2010

Hunting for more treasures in the Sports Illustrated vault

Sports Illustrated's online vault remains one of my favorite spots on the Internet. The site remains free, though there are always rumors that someday Time-Warner may start charging for access to the incredible archives inside the vault. I'd pay. Then again, I still actually buy newspapers and I know that's a dwindling minority, so who knows if other people would fork over money for access to SI's treasured past.

This cover above has John and Evelyn Olin, or, as they're called, "Mr. And Mrs. John Olin." It's from November 17, 1958. This issue came four years after Sports Illustrated premiered. It still focused on things like sailing, hunting and bridge. College football reigned, not the NFL. Baseball was certainly a popular subject, but no more so than the America's Cup.

Some of the stories in this issue:
Smile of Champions Recap of class-boat titles
Fair Game for Monsieur Louis "The chef at 21 can prepare anything from baby pheasants to black bear chops"
When Ely Deserted Culbertson Riveting story about contact bridge.

And it's fair to say Sports Illustrated originally targeted an elite readership. Today the Faces in the Crowd features high school phenoms, small-college standouts and the occasional middle-aged guy who won five straight league bowling titles in Alabama. In this issue?
"Pierre du Pont III, Wilmington, Del. corporation executive, sailed his schooner Barlovento over rainswept 100-mile Chesapeake Bay course, won Skipper Regatta in corrected 17:25:05.

Yes, he's one of the Du Ponts. A normal guy. Just your average face in the crowd.

There was another story in the issue, a completely non-sexist feature called "The Question: Should a husband try to teach his wife to ski?" There's an answer from Gary Cooper (who says yes), and from Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who wrote, "I think it's fine for a husband to teach his wife to ski, providing, of course, that he himself is a good skier and a good teacher." Rockefellers on skiing, Du Ponts on sailing. All that's missing is a blurb about a Mellon heir dominating croquet.

SI always loved dogs, as evidenced by this odd cover. Or this one. And then there's the February 8, 1960 cover: Are Dog Shows Ruining Dogs? I say yes.

In its early years, Sports Illustrated often relied on drawings for its covers, like this Masters one. The week after that issue, the "6th Annual Baseball" issue also featured a sketch, not a photo. In the May 16, 1960 issue, SI boldly labeled Australia the "leading sports nation," and as proof featured a cover of half-naked men and over-dressed girls playing tennis.

The old Sports Illustrated just loved bridge. Noted bridge expert Charles Goren appeared on the cover twice and had a cover byline a third time. Goren's byline appeared on the February 17, 1964 issue, the last time bridge graced the SI cover.

By the 1970s, SI had drifted toward the major sports, though the magazine still saved countless pages for national track and field events and regional swimming competitions, the type of stories that basically only appear every four years today.

Fran Tarkenton was the first Viking to make it on the cover, in 1962. Sports Illustrated's famous NFL writer Tex Maule wrote the cover story on the young quarterback, who would be traded by the team five years later before returning to Minnesota in the 1970s for the team's glory years. Maule's story ran with the headline "His Sundays are Murder: Fran Tarkenton, quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, has to scramble to save his young life." The second Viking player to make the cover? Ron Vander Kelen. A year after publishing the story on Tarkenton, SI wrote a lengthy feature on the rookie quarterback Vander Kelen, who came to the Vikings after playing college ball at Wisconsin and winning the Big Ten MVP in 1962. The story ran in August, as the rookie adjusted to the pros. Vander Kelen did not exactly match his college success; he threw six touchdown passes in his career. He's probably best known for being a trivia question answer: who started at quarterback in Bud Grant's first game as Vikings coach?

Incidentally, Bud Grant never made it on the cover of SI. In other words, Charles Goren made it two more times than one of the most successful coaches in NFL history. Then again, Charles Goren never lost four Super Bowls.

So many great strange covers from the magazine's early decades. Bud Ogden played two years in the NBA. He scored a total of 257 points. Yet in 1969, Ogden, then a star at Santa Clara, made the cover of the most famous sports magazine in the land, in this artsy, odd cover shot that was apparently conceived by a photographer who was enjoying some of that decade's finest pharmaceutical products:

In the current SI, there's a story on Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. But in 1957, a different Bobby Cox became the first Minnesota sports figure to make the Sports Illustrated cover. The magazine declared Gophers quarterback Bobby Cox the best quarterback in America. As far as I can tell, Cox is the only Gopher football player to ever make the cover. And, based on the last fifty years of Gophers football, it's more likely SI will put a bridge player on the cover before a Gopher.

But at least the program doesn't have to worry about being jinxed.

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