As a longtime fan of Sports Illustrated, I was thrilled when my copy of The Covers, a fifty-six year pictorial timeline of SI's covers, arrived at my doorstep. I was holding history in my hands. The package also included a copy of Sports Illustrated Kids All Access. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the latter book's unannounced presence. Because of the awkward, stumbling message I had left, did the publicist think I was thirteen?
SI's kid-geared products, notably Sports Illustrated for Kids, had never resonated with me. When I was eleven or twelve, I'd read the monthly magazine in about a half an hour, roll my eyes over the lame jokes, and relish a nugget or two of information about Charles Barkley (who developed his ferocious vertical leap by jumping over fences in his native Alabama) or Olympic swimmer Janet Evans (who burned so many calories that she could eat just about anything).
When I started reading Sports Illustrated a few years later, it felt right. Maybe I didn't understand all the jokes or want to read every article, but there was a sense that I would grow into the magazine's rich writing and investigative zeal. Sports Illustrated for Kids was not for my sophisticated reading tastes. It was time for boys to become men—or some such self-prescribed, misguided adolescent logic—and set my literary sights a little higher.
So I read All Access and The Covers—both coffee table books—and discovered that the kids were more than all right. All Access is full of big, colorful photos detailing the hidden world of professional sports (e.g., the pads that a football player wears, the inside of a baseball, the New York Mets' clubhouse), complemented by crisp, informative prose. I was hooked from the first image I saw, a graphic allowing me to compare my hand size with Shaquille O'Neal's. All Access is packed with information, but it's so breezily presented that you're compelled to flip ahead to learn how Louisville Sluggers are made or how Fenway Park's manual scoreboard is updated. The book rewards the intellectually curious, regardless of age or interest level in sports.
The Covers presents every SI cover—starting with the magazine's first issue of August 16, 1954 and ending on Shaq's May 17 appearance—with writers and editors (Frank Deford, former managing editor Bill Colson) contributing articles or retrospectives about the magazines from each decade. I liked gauging the magazine's progress through the covers, which for the first ten years or so featured broad topics such as "gymnastics" or pulsating, hot button issues like the best U.S. golf holes. And it's also fun to see what now-irrelevant athlete merited the cover treatment back in the day. Certain issues—including the ones featuring swimsuit models—elicited vivid memories.
But it's a mostly uninspired attempt, a collection of thousands of covers printed so tiny—the size of four postage stamps stacked two-by-two—that you can't even appreciate the photography. If you make the mistake of deciphering the text on the covers then you'll either need a pre-reading visit to a good optometrist or a jeweler's loupe. I paid the price for lacking such foresight. The thoughtlessness of the book is further highlighted in that there is precious little insight into the editorial process behind the SI cover. How far ahead are the decisions made? For posed shots, how do the photographers wrestle the athletes away from their busy schedules and groupies? What happens when there's a breaking development at the eleventh hour? The Covers would have been an ideal place for these stories to come to light—it would have made the photos even more impressive. Instead, we get stats on who has the most covers (Michael Jordan, obviously, with forty-nine) and yet another piece about the SI Cover Jinx. You never feel compelled to flip ahead.
All Access and The Covers make fine holiday gifts—the former because of its revelations, the latter because of its reputation. It's a testament to Sports Illustrated's editorial and photography abilities that readers can take away something from both books, though in the case of The Covers it's probably not worth the effort…even for ambitious twelve-year-olds.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.