An Ode to Sport
My problem began about ten or twelve years ago, while doing research for a story on Luis Tiant. Employing SABR's invaluable Baseball Index, I learned that Tiant had been profiled in the September 1968 issue of Sport. Being in no particular hurry, I spent a few weeks tracking down a used magazine supplier, forked out five or ten dollars, and soon got a big envelope in the mail.
When this issue was on the newsstands I was just entering the third grade; nonetheless, my baseball obsession was in full bloom. I might have seen this magazine in someone's house, admired the beautiful picture of Don Drysdale in mid-motion on the cover, and perhaps flipped through its pages. Years later, the excellent Tiant story ("The Most Popular Indian") helped me write the story I needed to write.
As an added bonus, I got the rest of the issue, which included profiles of Drysdale, Alex Johnson, and Ron Reed, and several stories on the current pitching domination, including one by pitcher-author Jim Brosnan. The Johnson profile (Earl Lawson's "A. J. of the Reds") was a fascinating early-career look at a troubled personality, and kindled an interest that led to my own story later on. Baseball articles carried the day, but there were a few football items (Lance Rentzel!), and stories centered around golf and billiards as well. And what sports magazine would be complete without the inevitable article on Jay Silvester ("A Discus Champ's Secrets")? The dense issue contained 16 features and several columns. This all cost 50 cents in 1968.
In the Sport Special, an acclaimed monthly feature, John Devaney wrote 6000 words (!) on Frank Howard, taking us through his childhood, his years in high school and at Ohio State, his days with the Dodgers, his current life with the Senators on and off the field, talks with various batting coaches about his evolution as a hitter, and insight from teammates, rival pitchers and managers, his family, and Howard himself. A fascinating story, wonderfully told.
Oh, and the pictures. From its very early days in the late 1940s, Sport always included several full page color photographs, very unusual even twenty years into its run, and they often found themselves carefully removed and placed in scrapbooks or on bedroom walls. The Luis Tiant photo is like one you would see on a baseball card of the era, a posed shot from the waist up on a sunny spring day, frankly as beautiful a picture I have ever seen of this well-photographed man, and I have seen plenty. If you are buying an old copy of Sport, know that there are plenty of issues out there with the pictures razor-bladed out.
So that, for me, was the start. A short time later, my Vern Stephens research led me to a couple of issues of Sport from the late 1940s. August 1949 was tough to find, as it included an outstanding Jackie Robinson cover story by Tom Meany, "Jackie's One of the Gang," and collectors love Robinson. The Stephens story (by Al Hirshberg) was the Sport Special, and provided a bountiful supply of first-hand perspective that I was looking for. Again, though, I spent just as much time with the rest of the magazine, especially a lengthy Grantland Rice piece called "What Makes A Young Ballplayer Great?" that profiled Larry Doby, Billy Goodman, Mike Garcia, and several others. Dan Parker's story on Yogi Berra ("He's a 'Character'") included a full-color shirtless shot of the young and (please forgive me) extremely buff Yankee backstop.
Although at first I had legitimate (ahem) research needs that required I track down these old magazines, I eventually learned to liberalize my rationale. If the September 1968 issue was so helpful, I wondered what treasures July would hold. Plenty, it turned out. That one included stories on Henry Aaron ("neglected superstar"), Hector Torres (former star of the Little League World Series, now an infielder with the Astros), the come-backing Tommy Davis, and Tony Conigliaro ("Don't Feel Sorry for Me," discussing his retirement from the game due to his eye injury). The AL managers participated in an exclusive poll to rank the players in the league at each position, one through ten. The best centerfielders, in order: Paul Blair, Reggie Smith, Joe Pepitone. That is worth knowing. The typically epic Sport Special explored the day-to-day life of the St. Louis Cardinals. And on and on.
Ebay has not only made buying easier, the free market has driven prices lower. Cutting to the chase, I now have more than 250 issues, including a complete run from 1956 to 1973, with magazines still showing up when I get a hankering for an early birthday present or two. Just today, in fact, I received the March 1954 issue with a gorgeous photo of Casey Stengel ("Man of the Year") staring at me. After reading it, I place it in its own plastic sleeve affixed with a sticker detailing the baseball articles contained within, and update my own spreadsheet catalog. If I want to read more on Alex Johnson - and who doesn't? - I can check out October 1969 or October 1970. Dave Johnson? July 1966. Lou Johnson? March 1966. Walter Johnson? November 1961.
Sport debuted in September 1946, its cover featuring Joe DiMaggio and four-year-old Joe Jr. sitting atop the Yankee dugout, its inside pages including the work of Grantland Rice, Tom Meany, and Jack Sher, a good start that would be bested many times. The book had four editors during its first thirty years: Ernest Heyn, Ed Fitzgerald, Al Silverman, and Dick Schaap, the latter three cutting their teeth as Sport writers for many years before taking over. Each editor had at his disposal a virtual Who's Who of the greatest sportswriters of the time, or of any time. In the June 1956 issue, pulling one out at random, Roger Kahn wrote a 10,000 word Sport Special on Willie Mays, and was joined in the issue by Red Smith, Al Silverman, Ed Linn, Frank Graham, and Frank Graham, Jr.
These men were not newspaper guys who were tossing off a story to Sport to get extra money. Many fine writers, including Kahn, Linn, Silverman, Schaap, Al Hirschberg, Arnold Hano, Lenny Shecter, and Al Stump, at times made their primary living writing as freelance feature writers, mainly for Sport and occasionally for general interest magazines like Saturday Evening Post or Look. Many of these articles, especially the Sport Specials, would take several weeks or months to put together.
Sport did not shy away from the biggest issues of the day. Furman Bisher wrote "What About The Negro Athlete In The South?" in May 1956, and the magazine regularly covered the uneasy integration of our country's fields and courts. Bill Veeck wrote several stories about various baseball ills and how to fix them, before and after his two wonderful books covering some of the same ground. Howard Cosell wrote a column for many years before he became a TV star. So did Joe Garagiola. Allan Roth contributed regular statistical pieces, decades ahead of his time. There were notes, letters, cartoons, a monthly quiz, book reviews, fashion profiles.
Better yet, there was a long-running monthly feature called "Campus Queen" highlighting a buxom young co-ed with a picture and a paragraph or two about her likes and dislikes. What else do you need? OK, fine, in September 1957 Gussie Moran, more or less the Anna Kournikova of the 1940s, contributed "Baseball's Ten Handsomest Men," a full-length feature with a full page color photo of the author with Jerry Coleman. The other nine, since you are dying to know, just got head shots: Bob Friend, Eddie Mathews ("the Tyrone Power of baseball"), Jimmie Piersall ("great depth in his face"), Gino Cimoli, Gus Bell, Bobby Avila ("he makes you think of moonlit nights south of the border," Vinegar Bend Mizell, Ray Boone, and Robin Roberts. My vote: Gussie, in a walk.
Most Sport articles focused on people, either strict profiles or stories that brought the reader closer to the lives of the performers. In the early years, baseball, boxing, and college football made up the bulk of the magazine, with professional football and basketball coming along later. There were usually two or three baseball stories in the winter, and six to ten in the summer months. By the late 1970s the magazine had fewer stories, and baseball's prominence in the magazine had dampened considerably. In December 1973 Sport published its first baseball-free issue.
I subscribed to Sport through my teen years in the 1970s, my first venture into a lifetime of magazine reading. Alas, during this period Sport gradually became less focused on telling stories and profiling people, and more interested in flash and glamour - part of a natural literary degradation that leads ultimately to ESPN The Magazine. Granted, the classic July 1977 Jan Stephenson cover was well received, but the magazine was no longer must-reading, and certainly holds little value to a researcher today. Sport hung around another couple of decades, finally expiring in 2000 without anyone much noticing.
We are supposed to believe that this kind of thing is inevitable, that a monthly sports magazine can not keep up with this new fast-paced world we live in. This view is unsatisfying. Sure the internet has a lot of high quality baseball writing if you know where to look, but the kind of story Sport specialized in has vanished. An internet writer can replace a newspaper columnist well enough, because the latter's press credentials afford little advantage when discussing whether a manager should be fired, or who belongs in the Hall of Fame, or the latest steroid scandal. But real feature reporting, writing 8,000 words with quotes from 20 players, managers, family members and friends, is not so easily done from the comfort of an office. No one is doing it any more because it is too hard. Sport delivered high-quality stories like this for 30 years.
There have been at least four Sport anthologies, and I suppose I could satisfy some of my hankering by just reading those. Al Silverman's "The Best of Sport, 1946-1971" (Viking, 1971) is over 600 pages of small print, and is packed with great writers and great writing. But really, the 46 articles contained there, many of them several thousand words long, add up to about three or four issues worth. More to the point, it is not a magazine.
As you can likely tell, I like magazines - I like holding them, looking at the pictures, skipping articles, returning to them later. I read them on airplanes, on hotel beds, in tents, at the beach, but mostly these days in my big green chair. Although I now get most of my news (baseball and otherwise) from the internet, I get my real cultural insight from the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. But what I wouldn't do for the return of Sport, 12 issues a year.