Cover Boys

A few months ago, after we lost Henry Aaron, there was discussion on Twitter suggesting that Aaron had been short-changed by magazine covers during his career, especially by Sports Illustrated and SPORT. I will set aside SI for now (later, I hope), but I might be able to help with the SPORT issue.

I am an avowed fan of the heyday of SPORT. The magazine debuted in September 1946, and was a haven for long-form sports articles for 30 years. (It hung on into the 1990s, though I can not speak the later years.) I have written about SPORT before, so read this if you want the full story.

I own a complete run of SPORT through 1976, and I have used the magazine dozens of times for my own writing–for my own books, but especially for countless BioProject articles. We have made much progress in our ability to do research via the internet–many newspapers are on-line, the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated. But not SPORT, and really there was nothing else like it. So my hardcopies remain.

A couple of years ago, I spent some time creating postcard-sized copies of every SPORT cover and putting them in a binder. Long-term I want to place a subject index in each pocket so that my binder would also be useful. I’m But for now, I just have the postcards.

I recently went through my binder to count the number of times people appeared on a cover. Before presenting the answers, I wanted to explain how I counted. SPORT has employed many different cover designs over the years. Often they have just shown a single player as the cover subject, sometimes they have two or more players share a cover, and occasionally they will have one primary subject but one or more secondary subjects. Rather than make things overly complicated, I decided to keep two counts: primary, and secondary. A few examples should help.

On the left, Willie Mays is the primary subject. On the right, Ted Williams and Stan Musial are each primary subjects.

On the left, Dick Groat is the primary subject and Mickey Mantle and Jim Taylor are secondary subjects. On the right, there are 20 secondary subjects (none named, which tilted the decision).

There are some judgment calls, and one could argue that I really needed four categories, or eight categories. Ultimately, I didn’t feel the subject warranted Yalta-level deliberations.

To return to where we started, Henry Aaron was a primary subject on four SPORT covers.

It is unfortunate that neither the June 1962 or July 1968 photos filled the entire cover. Surely they would today be mounted and framed all across this land. They may still be.

Is four covers a low total? Baseball dominated SPORT covers and articles throughout much of Aaron’s career, at least until the late 1960s. SPORT was a monthly magazine, so there were generally only 7 or 8 baseball covers per year to go around and lots of other stars.

The all-time leaders (through 1976, counting only covers as a primary subject, and counting only baseball players) are Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, with 16 covers each.

This August 1959 cover is the only one they graced together, albeit with two other players.

Here are the primary cover leaders:

  • 16: Mantle, Mays
  • 9: Ted Williams, Stan Musial
  • 7: Joe DiMaggio
  • 6: Rocky Colavito, Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson
  • 5: Frank Robinson, Duke Snider, Warren Spahn
  • 4: Aaron, Yogi Berra, Eddie Mathews, Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Maury Wills

All of these players are Hall of Famers with the exceptions of Colavito, Rose, and Wills, with Rocky by far the most surprising entry.

Colavito was a fine player, a six-time all-star who hit 30+ home runs seven times. He was no Henry Aaron, even in on his best day, but he was a very popular player in Cleveland and Detroit. SPORT was trying to sell magazines, and under no obligation to put the “best player” on the cover. However, it must be said that Colavito also bested Aaron inside the magazine, with 12 feature stories during his career to Aaron’s 11, despite Henry being a great player long after Rocky had washed out of the league. (Both Mays and Mantle had 30).

It would be naive to ignore race in this matter. Perhaps not directly–Aaron was well-liked and celebrated often in the pages of SPORT. But the magazine’s belief in Colavito as a story or cover subject, and the popularity of Colavito generally, stands out in a time when most of the bright young stars entering the game were Latino or African-American.

Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks were featured on the cover of SPORT once each, shown above. Both were frequent story subjects (Banks 12, Clemente 11) but could not crack the cover code. Bob Gibson, the best and most famous pitcher in the world in the late 1960s, never graced the cover of SPORT magazine. On the other hand, Joe DiMaggio, who retired in 1951, made the cover five times in the 1960s.

SPORT did put Mays on the cover 16 times, and gave him their biggest honor on their 25th anniversary issue. SPORT loved Mays, as did every other sports magazine of the era. Heck, he also graced the covers of Look, Life, and Time. Mays is in his own special category.

SPORT’s baseball covers in the 1960s seemed to rotate between the nostalgia (DiMaggio, Ruth, Williams), a new emerging hero (Dean Chance, Johnny Callison) or a superstar. When they wanted the latter, Mantle and Mays were often the chosen ones, and famous stars like Gibson, Clemente, or Brooks Robinson (1 cover) were left out.

If I can find the time, I might make postcards for Sports Illustrated baseball covers. (Lawyers: I am not selling anything, just putting them in a binder for my own use.)

In the meantime, I will settle for 30 years of SPORT.

Author: Mark Armour

Long-time SABR member, founder and past chairman of the Baseball Cards Committee, founder and past chairman (2002-2016) of the Biography Project, current President of the SABR board of directors, author of several books and dozens of articles on baseball. See mark-armour.net.

3 thoughts on “Cover Boys”

  1. Great blog. I read Sport in the ’60s & early ’70s. I was thrilled recently when I found an issue Feb. ’72 that had an article about Amos Otis, ” See Amos Run” that I remembered reading as a kid. ( Spencer Haywood on the cover.)

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  2. When I look at just the covers, they seem to explain why Aaron wasn’t on more covers.

    Upper right: What it’s like to be a neglected superstar.

    Lower left: The finest hours of a quiet legend.

    As you mentioned, SPORT was in the business of selling magazines, not promoting the “best” players in their magazine. If Aaron was quiet and reserved and didn’t like the spotlight, he’s likely not going to help sell magazines (and perhaps he didn’t want to be a feature story; people who know his life better would be much better able to speak to that than I can). I have no idea if Mike Trout or Bryce Harper has been on more magazine covers (or whatever the equivalent is today), but it wouldn’t surprise me if Harper had been on more, despite Trout being a much better player, given that Harper seems to be a more outgoing (what’s the baseball term … fiery?) player.

    When I read through the history of SPORT (I’m assuming Wikipedia is at least somewhat accurate on the changes in ownership), it looks like SPORT was based in NY. Even if it had national circulation, if someone is based in NY and trying to sell magazines close to home, they are likely going to focus on NY players (hence Mantle and Mays and even the retired DiMaggio). Rocky Colavito, while he didn’t play in NY, was from NY. From 1956-1961, Aaron hit 213 HRs and Colavito 209 (with Colavito having about 600 fewer plate appearances). Of course Aaron was a much more well-rounded offensive player, though they were both pretty good defensive players (looking at baseball-reference rfield).

    There could also have been access issues – it may have been much easier to do pieces on players in/from NY because it’s easier to access people who know them. It looks like in 1961 Bartell Broadcasting Corporation purchased a controlling share in Macfadden Publications (SPORT). Bartell had radio stations in NY, Milwaukee, and San Diego. It looks like Aaron’s first cover was in 1962, which seems to make some sense if Bartell is trying to capture some synergies in the Milwaukee market or has better contacts in the Milwaukee area with people who knew Aaron.

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  3. I believe that of the list of cover boys, the Braves were the only one with 3 players (Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn) who were playing together in their prime. It seems the only other team with 3 were the Dodgers and Koufax didn’t become cover ready until Jackie and the Duke were long gone. So I wonder if Hank might have been held back by Sport not wanting to put too many Braves on the cover.

    I also wonder if race may have had anything to do with who and how often a Black player appeared on the cover.

    Finally, I have fond memories of reading Sport as a kid in the 1960s and for several years virtually all of my allowance went to buying it, the Sporting News, and baseball cards. At the time, Baltimore, where I was growing up, was much more of a Colts’ town than an Orioles’ one. I seem to recall a cover with the question of whether you would trade Jim Brown for Johnny Unitas. It was the subject of debate among my friends and I for many days. Maybe Mark can tell me if that was a Sport cover

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