OCTOBER 19, 1997, SPORTS
Copyright 1997/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Magazine Illustrated Sports’ Importance
When Sports Illustrated first came out, it had a hard time identifying with the hardcore sports public. I know. I was there.
Dan Jenkins, who later rode to its rescue, dismissed its early editions as “a slick cookbook for your basic two-yacht family.” Still others saw it as “a coffee table item for polo players’ living rooms.” A colleague wondered when we would publish a lead story, “Falcons Are Fun,” referring to the peregrine kind, not the Atlanta football team.
An editor at Hearst’s Cosmopolitan, Jack O’Connell, used to ask us regularly at the bar at Toots Shor’s, “When are you going to stop wasting Harry Luce’s money on jock straps?”
Even in the company (Time Inc.), the chorus of doom was deafening. The editor first tapped to get it off the ground, Ernie Havemann, gave up on it and wrote a 26-page memo, intending to inter it.
Only two men believed in it: Sid James, who came down from the flagship of the Time Inc. fleet, LIFE magazine, to take over from Havemann. And Harry Luce. Luce had learned the hard way that sports were important. Though sports-illiterate himself — he was raised in China — he grew vexed when top-level dinner talks with prime ministers and foreign ministers turned to sport.
“If it’s that damn important, why don’t we have a magazine on it?” he demanded.
The extraordinary story of the watershed magazine is explored in a new book, “The Franchise,” a 434-page history of the 43-year old magazine,written by Michael MacCambridge after detailed research.
It ‘s impossible to downplay the importance of the magazine on the incredible explosion in sports in the last half of the 20th century. Consider that one player, the great Joe DiMaggio, was paid as much as $100,000 in that benighted era. Today, high school kids make more than any Rockefeller then.
Sports Illustrated came out in the era and the aura of television, the great Aztec god of games. I remember some of us were leery of the challenge. TV already had begun to bring down the cash cow of the company, LIFE, whose still pictures couldn’t compete with TV ‘s moving, talking pictures.
James was reassuring.
“TV will show them how they won. We’ll tell them why,” he said.
I was right in one exchange with early days management. The assistant publisher, Dick Neale, told me confidently one day why the mag would be a success.
“We can buy the subscription lists of the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post and find the readers,” he said.
I was dubious, warning, “You better be sure the writing is of a high order.”
It was. The publication reached out and found the country — and the world — awash with poets of the playing fields. It mined Texas and found the incomparable Jenkins in Fort Worth, giving the country a writer in every way the equal of Ring Lardner.
Quoting Jenkins’ leads of one-liners became a favorite indoor sport of a thousand locker rooms. He became the signature hole of the magazine. He verified it, put the stamp of literature on it the New Yorker might envy.
He was followed by others. Today a Jenkins clone, Rick Reilly, anchors the tradition.
But MacCambridge’s book lists the casualties of that never-ending war between talented editors and talented writers, nuclear outbursts that no one won — and the world and the magazine lost. When Jenkins and editor Gil Rogin got in each others’ gun sights, they both wound up in orbit, Jenkins going to a golf magazine and his novels, Rogin to wandering, bewildered, in the corporate halls, finding no place to light.
The book is replete with office gossip, scorecards on the pitting of one editor against another in an obscene public struggle for one job. Management called them “bakeoffs” but they resembled nothing so much as replays of the Christians versus the lions, with the publisher playing Nero.
As someone wrote, the talent was so Vesuvian, it’s no surprise that the lid blew off periodically and the editorial offices got covered with lava.
The cast of characters of the men in charge ranged from James, without whose optimism and dogged spadework the magazine would have died in its crib, to Andre Laguerre, a Frenchman who had been Gen. de Gaulle’s first lieutenant, to Mark Mulvoy, a stage Irishman with a sure instinct for what the fan on the street wanted from S.I.
Pro football was a presence but not a religion when Sports Illustrated hit the scene. Major league baseball was declining precipitously in attendance, going from 21 million in 1948 to 14 million in ’54 when S.I. hit the newsstands. Last year, attendance was 29,718,093 in the American League and 30,379,288 in the National.
Pro basketball was an acquired taste, like the olive martini, before S.I., and college basketball was attended only by students — usually for the dance afterward. We all played a part in making golf a sport that Tiger Woods could come along and take over, but none more than S.I. It did more for golf than Arnold Palmer.
How much did one magazine play in the boom? Plenty, thinks MacCambridge. It has survived, even thrived, in a field since saturated with TV. When we started it, we were afraid we might not even meet the 350,000 in circulation that was guaranteed advertisers. Last time I looked, its weekly circulation was 3.2 million.
On my wall in my living room is one of my prized possessions. It’s a letter from Henry Luce, sent me the day after Christmas, 1953, just after we had pulled together the first three advertising dummies for the new magazine.
He wrote: “Fingers must always be crossed but it does indeed look as if we had a good magazine coming up.”
We sure did, Harry.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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