Sports Illustrated is going to be different under new ownership, and while I suppose that is to be expected, I am not excited about what the magazine is likely to become.
First of all, we will get less of it — publishing fewer issues, they say, with more in-depth pieces. I like the sound of that, but whom are they kidding? Who out there can write like Dan Jenkins, John Underwood, Tex Maule and Jack Olsen? Those iconic and classic essayists?
My introduction to the magazine came about in the late ‘50s, when the Dean of Men at the University of Georgia, William Tate, an unforgettable character, who was a devoted SI subscriber, gave me a subscription to the magazine. He kept all the copies of the magazine for years and later gave them to me, a treasure that was overwhelming. Most them are in bound copies, resting inconspicuously in book shelves in my basement.
A sidebar to where this treatise is going is that if the grand old dean was here today and wanted to give something of journalist value to an enterprising student, he would have to gift him a piece of technology which in most cases would be as literarily redeeming as a recapped tire.
From the early sixties to yesterday, I have been a devoted advocate of SI, mainly because of the extraordinary writing and photography that led to sensational and classic presentations. I was fond of the magazine’s eloquent essays and avant-garde photography long before the swimsuit issues came about.
If you read one of those outdoor essays by Jack Olsen, for example, it made you want to go shopping at L. L Bean, head off into the Adirondacks, accompanied by nature and its uninhibited influence; immerse yourself in field and stream and “gather ye rosebuds while you may.” Time was never of the essence with those long narratives which the magazine referred to as bonus pieces.
Two of the vaunted SI writers became close friends and provided enlightenment that resonates today — John Underwood and Dan Jenkins, a Conch from the Keys and a caustic Texan. I have spent time in their homes and they have spent time in mine.
I never took the lead in any conversation. To talk with them about journalism would have been tantamount to talking football with Bear Bryant or Bill Belichick. I was, however, a steadfast and doting listener. The rewards of conversational osmosis with these two journalistic icons brings about joyful noises in my head today.
SI writers were well paid, well-traveled and well-dressed. They were the beneficiaries of one of the best retirements in the business. I learned that from David Halberstam in his classic book, “The Powers that Be.” SI founder Henry Luce was a remarkable man when it came to vision and an appreciation for making the best writers the best paid for all Time-Life publications.
There was more than enviable compensation, fringe benefits and the best retirement system in the publications industry. SI writers were allowed to write books. Then the magazine promoted their staffer’s books with unimpeachable urgency.
Underwood enhanced his income significantly with biographies of sports legends such as Ted Williams and Bear Bryant. Underwood also spoke to the conscience of sports. His book, “Death of an American Game,” was published in 1979 and some of his fears about football’s issues are manifesting themselves today.
Jenkins became the premier sports novelist of our time. He could make readers laugh uncontrollably with his wit and humor. He never took himself seriously. Three of his novels — “Semi-Tough”, “Dead, Solid, Perfect” and “Baja, Oklahoma” — were turned into movies.
I will always be indebted to Underwood who took me to dinner one night, with Ted Williams, following a Red Sox spring training game. I didn’t need a bucket list after that. When Jenkins hosted me for dinner at Club 21 in New York, he advised, “order anything you like.” After he ordered a hamburger, I followed suit.
Because of such friendships, my affection for Sports Illustrated has endured for years, but not only is the magazine not what it used to be, it will be hard pressed to equal the lineup of the magazine’s heyday when sports fans couldn’t get enough of writers like Underwood and Jenkins.