The cover is the face of any magazine, the first thing readers see, the place where the editors declare their intentions. This week's cover announces an exclusive look into the complicated and sometimes treacherous world of sports agenting, a place where Cuba Gooding Jr.'s insistence that Tom Cruise show him the money is apparently recited as a mantra. It's a controversial cover choice, especially in a news cycle that included South Carolina shocking Alabama 35--21, but the work of George Dohrmann, SI's Pulitzer Prize--winning senior writer, lifts the magazine to a level above wins and losses.
Every week SI's cover inspires keen interest bordering on obsession. This has been the case since late 1953, when Sid James, the magazine's first managing editor, struggled over which image to use on a dummy issue he was putting together to test whether the country wanted a sports weekly. He decided on a shot of the crowd at Oklahoma's rainy November football victory over Nebraska. The absence of football action underlined the basic SPORTS ILLUSTRATED proposition: that a growing interest in watching sports was a market waiting to happen. That point of view was refined over the next 56 years, starting with much traditional illustration reflecting a "leisure time" aesthetic that was then prevalent in all aspects of American life. This gave way to a more elegant and intuitive style that would redefine American magazine journalism, and by 1983, when SI became the first all-color national weekly, the magazine had emerged as a graphically sophisticated mass-audience magazine with covers that enjoyed status, influence and even an emerging jinx mythology. The look was both bold and nuanced with a modernism that continues to serve the magazine well.
Every cover has always been closer to a snapshot of the week than a painting of the era. Put them all together in Sports Illustrated: The Covers, though, and something happens. All those covers, nearly 3,000 of them—every one since that first image of Eddie Mathews hit newsstands in 1954—become history. Those weeks add up to eras, and the snapshots become a panorama of the changing landscape of sport. Turn the pages, and the years and the stars, the great upsets and the dispiriting scandals, flow together in a montage of memory that brings back the way we were.
And then there is the statistical analysis. Which player had the most covers? Which team? And which college? (Hint: It's not Notre Dame.) Who was the most famous athlete never to have a cover? How many covers featured U.S. presidents? How many married couples are there in which each spouse had an SI cover? (Our favorite is Detroit Lions star Doak Walker and Olympic skier Skeeter Werner, who both had covers in 1955 and wed 13 years later.)
An SI cover is an instant pop icon, though there are those who question whether being on one is necessarily a good thing. Not that being on the cover 22 times adversely affected Jack Nicklaus. Nor did Michael Jordan, who hit the cover trifecta by being photographed while playing basketball, golf and baseball, suffer from his 49 appearances. Still, the so-called SI cover jinx is part of America's sporting mindscape, the great unscripted drama, wherein strange things have happened to cover subjects with uncomfortable frequency since the early days of the magazine. It's all in Sports Illustrated: The Covers, available wherever books are sold or at si.com/thecoversbook for $29.95 ($32.95 Canada).
FACE FORWARD The 1953 test cover for an unnamed weekly sports magazine.