In its time, it was eagerly awaited at mailboxes, week after week, for the words and pictures by masters.
Kids don’t read today, which means the average age for readers of print news is probably in the 50s, heading toward the 60s. That’s the best way I can explain the rot that has struck Sports Illustrated.
There’s no money in it – certainly not for the speculator-gravediggers who make money by investing in once-great papers and magazines and then writing if off on their taxes. Rich people know how to do that.
But once upon a time, Sports Illustrated arrived mid-week, and was a legitimate excuse to spend an hour or three reading it. I started out by reading Robert Creamer on baseball and Dan Jenkins on football and then in my working time I never knew where Gary Smith or Frank Deford had been – mainstream or oddity sport. Whatever the subject, it read better in SI.
And the photos. As a working scribe, I ran into the masters like Walter Iooss, Jr., Heinz Kluetmeier or Neil Leifer, deservedly full of themselves. SI also hired the best free-lancers and paid them well. Now a few photography empires have cornered the market – even buying up the photo files of fading empires like SI.
My friend John McDermott has watched the fading of the magazine free-lance market for photographers. From his home in Italy, he shared his memories of the golden days of magazines – Newsweek, SI, and others.
“I worked for SI a lot. It was soccer that got me in the door initially. I had a meager portfolio and somehow got an appointment to see a photo editor. I think they didn’t know anyone who shot soccer so they gave me a chance. First job was to shoot England v. Italy at Yankee Stadium in 1976 during the Bicentennial Cup. I don’t think I did very well, but maybe they just didn’t know the difference.
“I started to get more work for them, and on other things, mainly ‘personality pieces,’ the lengthy back-of-the book stories focused on an athlete. I did Dwight Clark, Matt Biondi, shotputter Maren Seidler, Stanford tennis program and coaches, basketball player Chris Webber and others. More soccer including NASL championships, the Cosmos, Pele’s Farewell Game, Beckenbauer, Maradona’s first game with Argentina in Europe, the 1990 US World Cup team. Pebble Beach golf.
“Best assignment ever was a twelve-page essay on rugby where they just told me ‘go and shoot rugby, start with the Monterey Tournament and then figure out what else you can do.’ They sat on it for a year, then during a slow period, a baseball strike, they ran twelve pages, which for SI was a very big deal.”
John recalls working with writers like Kenny Moore, Demmie Stathopoulos, Frank Deford, Clive Gammon and Ron Fimrite. Great names, great talents.
SI made a newspaper columnist want to check the weekly column in the back of the magazine, to see what Rick Reilly did in his flashy way or what Steve Rushin did in his thoughtful way.
A lot of SI writers were good company – friends like Michael Farber on the hockey beat, Grant Wahl on the soccer beat, my neighbor and friend Walter Bingham, Sally Jenkins on the tennis beat. (I now refer to Sally as “the last sports columnist,” meaning she maintains the high level at the Washington Post once demanded at dozens of major papers.)
One of my best assignments, ever, was the 1991 Pan-American Games in Cuba – hanging with two SI reporters, Alex Wolff and Merrell Noden. (Our new best friend and interpreter, Ziomara, nicknamed them Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, as I recall, for their American movie look.)
If I had to pick one classic article from Sports Illustrated, it would be William Nack’s farewell to Secretariat, in 1990 – when the greatest horse of all was put down in extreme old age. Bill put his skill and intensity into everything he did, but particularly horse racing. He covered Secretariat’s Triple Crown and he remained in touch into equine old age on the farm in Lexington, Ky. (I got to pet the giant red beast, swaybacked by then – with the help of a few contraband sugar cubes -- during Derby week in 1989.)
A year later, Nack got the call from a friend to get himself down to Bluegrass country to say goodbye to Big Red. Knowing how long it took for him to write, I bet he shed many tears while writing his elegant ode to a dear friend.
SI had the space, and the color pages, and the freedom for Bill Nack, and so many others, to write what they knew and felt.
Then people stopped reading newspapers and magazines. The New York Times blew up its sports section a few months ago, in favor of taking stuff off a website. The great Baltimore Sun has just fallen to scavenger types.
This will sound snide, but when I heard investors were preparing to put down Sports Illustrated, I had to catch myself thinking, “You mean, it is still publishing?” In its time, it was a giant.
Bill Nack’s farewell to Secretariat:
A partial list of SI writers. (Not counting the great photographers.)
Please, recall your favorite SI articles – and favorite SI photo spreads – and include them under “Comments.” GV
My ode to Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker was followed by these photos from my good friend and master photographer John McDermott, long-time soccer presence, now riding the range (on his bicycle) in northern Italy.
John wrote: "One of my favorite assignments ever was to go to Colorado for a German magazine and shoot a story on contemporary cowboys. I had a great time, but ended up with a sore butt and back, not being used to riding a horse up and down steep trails. The deal with the cowboys was, “We'll give you a horse but then you need to help us with the cattle when we need you. So I got to play cowboy a little too."
John added: "The shoot took place at a ranch and in the mountains outside of Crested Butte, Colorado. The rodeo was the Cattleman’s Day event held annually in nearby Gunnison. One of the best assignments ever. The Germans were good for that. I did a lot of lengthy photo reportage assignments for Focus-on mega-churches in Texas, on the medical marijuana industry in California, on earthquake preparation in SF, on writer Isabel Allende and many others. They tended to give more space to good photography than most American magazines did. Of course, now most of the American magazines are either greatly diminished, online only, or just gone."
Well, cowboys are supposed to be gone, too, but John McDermott's photo essay -- and Thomas McGuane's short story in the New Yorker -- prove that cowboys endure.
GV adds: Several people couldn't open the Thomas McGuane short story, so I took the liberty of downloading it here: