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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: June 18, 2024 8:08 pm PDT

BY KEVIN KERNAN

For just about my entire life, Sports Illustrated has been alive and it even played a role in my choosing a career path, more on that in a bit.

On August 16, 1954, SI was born with the iconic cover photo of 22-year-old Eddie Matthews of the Milwaukee Braves taking a mighty left-handed swing in front of a huge crowd at Milwaukee County Stadium, a crowd basking in a glorious baseball moment. Wes Westrum was catching and Angie Donatello was the umpire.

Baseball was then completely America’s Game.

That picture says so much about sports in America. I was a little over a year old at the time and I did not know anything about SI. Not for about seven years until the Pirates beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series. Sports Illustrated always made its way into the old police station on the Boulevard in Kenilworth, N.J., where my father, a huge sports fan, worked. The cops all loved SI.

SI used to be everywhere. Doctors and dentists’ offices, and at the local corner store at the end of 7th Street; the street where I lived was a handy spot where I could take the magazine off the rack, flip through the pages and take in the beauty of sports. Later, I would get a subscription like some of my friends. Sports Illustrated paved a way for the love of sports because it was fun to look at, read and we got to learn about our sports heroes. There was more than the back of a baseball card. Same goes for the NFL, some of those Sports Illustrated NFL photos jumped off the page at you. Basketball, boxing and horse racing, too.

The magazine gave sports fans what they wanted, fantastic pictures from legends like Walter Iooss Jr., Neil Leifer and John Iacono, and well-crafted words about all sports and especially in the case of that first cover, the magazine put you, the sports fan, in the front row of the action. It was Iacono who made that wonderful photo of Dick Allen juggling baseballs in the dugout with the White Sox, a photo that became the cover on June 12, 1972.

SI embraced the TV generation of sports and used TV as a guidepost. They would go deeper into the game or the golf tournament that you saw on television.

Like seemingly every kid in that era, I had all the Sports illustrated issues stashed away in my bedroom. When I went away to college in the mid ‘70s, not knowing what career path I was going to take, I happened to venture into a Sports in America writing class at Ramapo College that was taught by an adjunct professor named Peter Carry. Carry, it turns out, was then a legendary editor at Sports Illustrated who began at the magazine in 1964 and edited the likes of Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford.

Being a college baseball player and friends with all the crazy hockey players at the school and enjoying writing, I was not going to pass up this class. I was writing a column for the college newspaper called Kernan’s Korner, and it was amazing to me the information you picked up at the bonfire after a big hockey win. I had stumbled into the fact that people want to know what’s going on behind the scenes as well as the sport itself.

Peter Carry was a tremendous editor, who grew up in the area, and from what I remember from 48 years ago, told that class that at Sports Illustrated they had a “push, pull relationship’’ with its readers.

SI's First Cover, 1954.

Meaning, the popularity of certain sports and athletes would “push’’ SI to cover those stories but at the same time, the magazine would “pull’’ its readers to other stories.

It was a brilliant concept and worked because of the photos and the writing. On those days you didn’t feel like reading a lengthy story, you could check out the pictures, then read the story later. There also were Roundups, Faces in the Crowd and Scorecard, too to check out.

In 1964, Sports Illustrated published its first Swimsuit Issue. That later became pure gold for the magazine and paid the freight for many staffers.

At one point in my career I did some work for SI as a stringer, feeding them tidbits on a weekly basis so that was cool, too. Through the years I became friends with several SI writers. I even taught the incredibly gifted writer Gary Smith how to use a digital tape recorder. Jeff Pearlman told me that he used parts of my little book geared toward young readers called “Roger Clemens ROCKET!’’ written for little Sports Publishing, Inc. as research for his big Clemens book: “The Rocket That Fell to Earth.’’

His book made a lot more money.

Through the years I spent plenty of time in press boxes with the likes of fellow Jersey Guy Tom Verducci talking baseball and many other SI writers, in the front row of NBA arenas or in football press boxes with writers like Rick Reilly and S.L. Price. I worked in San Diego with Jim Trotter and knew Lee Jenkins from his San Diego days. His dad was a columnist at the San Diego paper. Covering the New York Giants in 1977-79 I got to know Dr. Z, Paul Zimmerman, before he went to Sports Illustrated and was covering football at a New York paper.

So, SI and I go way back in many ways.

And yes, Sports Illustrated was the ultimate for sportswriters and fans.

All this, and a Football Phone with a yearly subscription.

Once you start using Fake Writers in any capacity you lose your credibility and you lose me. Kind of like baseball with Fake Runners. 

Words carried the day. I remember there was one baseball writer who used to travel with a briefcase filled with old issues of Sports Illustrated from their glorious past, not only research material but also as a way of maybe offering a little help to him in turning a phrase.

Sports Illustrated covers possessed a life of their own, both in positive and negative ways. And not just baseball, the football covers were so special like Lynn Swann’s diving catch against the Cowboys, Fran Tarkenton, “He’s Frantastic.’’ Baseball offered “Indian Uprising’’ on its 1987 baseball preview issue back when you could call a team the Indians.

Michael Jordan got so mad at a cover during his baseball pursuit, titled: “Bag It, Michael’’ where he badly swung and missed at a pitch, that he never talked to the magazine again.

There was also the Verducci cover story: “Jeter on Jeter.’’

My friend Jeff Francoeur had a cover. He was a rookie and tabbed “The Natural.’’ In 1974 there was Pete Rose in his uniform: “Rose On The Reds’’ and 11 years later Pete again, “Ty Cobb Here I Come.’’ Back in September of 1969 there was Pete Rose standing on first base alongside the Cubs Ernie Banks with the headline: “The Frantic National League.”

The Miracle Mets made it a lot more frantic that year. In 2004 there was Pete Rose’s Confession.

Pete Rose had a cover it seems for every decade.

Sports Illustrated made the sports world a little more interesting back when it was really “Sports Illustrated.’’

It hasn’t been Sports Illustrated for a while.

Once you start using Fake Writers in any capacity you lose your credibility and you lose me. Kind of like baseball with Fake Runners. Once you change the Swimsuit Issue into what looks like a Saturday Night Live skit, it’s a much different SI world.

With the news on Friday of the SI staff being terminated, Sports Illustrated is pretty much officially gone after all these years. On X @FOS (Front Office Sports) noted: “BREAKING: The Arena Group has given notice that it intends to lay off Sports Illustrated’s entire staff, according to an email obtained by FOS.”

Of course you feel for those who lose jobs, and from the personal experience of having my position eliminated in 2020 at the newspaper place I worked for decades, it is tough for anyone at any time to lose their job.

Something called Authentic Brands Group has owned the magazine and website since 2019 and sold the publishing rights to Arena Group. The company missed a payment for those rights, according to multiple reports, and Authentic Brands Group revoked those publishing rights. ABG said Sports Illustrated will continue in some form.

Really? What form?

Lots of AI jobs coming perhaps?

It was in November that Futurism broke the story that SI was using AI-generated stories and was writing articles under fake author names.

Pretty bold to go from SI to AI.

The Arena Group blamed a contractor for that embarrassing experience, but at that point you could tell SI, the magazine we once loved, had entered hospice.

I really feel for the readers who enjoyed those decades when SI was at the top of its game with long form writing, telling you stories you wanted to hear and SI having the access to get those stories. I always laugh at the term Long Form. To me it’s just writing. Is there a number of words you cross where The Story, Any Story suddenly becomes Long Form?

If you give readers what they want, if you offer insight and inside information in an honest way, you are on the right path no matter if it is Long Form or Short Form writing. It’s a crazy publishing and podcast world we are living in, for the Big Groups like SI and the Little Groups too like here at BallNine.

BallNine’s editor in chief Chris Vitali is living in that world right now. I’m just a visitor, I just write. That’s always been my approach. Not to sound like Barry Manilow “I Write the Songs’’ but I write and hopefully people want to read the stories I write.

Ironically, Barry Manilow did not write: “I Write the Songs.’’ It was written by Bruce Johnston in 1975. Barry just made it popular and that, of course, is the secret sauce.

Michael Jordan cover - 1994.

To me, Sports Illustrated badly lost its way in giving the reader what the reader wanted.

SI once had over three million subscribers, seemingly everybody read it. You knew what you were going to get. And this is an important point many people miss these days.

If you want to be lectured, there are plenty of places you can go to be lectured. Go to college. Just look at the kind of lecturing that is going on there nowadays. I don’t want to be lectured. I want to be entertained and maybe learn something. I want to enjoy the experience of reading on a website, especially when it comes to sports. That doesn’t mean it can’t be an in-depth, soul-searching story, but I don’t want to be hammered over the head time and again with something that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me.

I kind of got that feeling that Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles, a tremendous defense-minded coach, kind of said a year ago when he was being grilled by reporters about how he should feel on a certain subject, go look it up on Google. And I’m not talking about the “reporter’’ who wanted to know this past week how difficult it was going to play in the cold in Detroit. The questioner was so focused on her question of it being cold in winter in Detroit, that’s news, you know, she had no clue the Lions have been playing indoors since 1975.

Like Bill Belichick famously says, “Do your job.’’ For a long time, SI did its job.

And I get, sometimes you ask the wrong question, it happens, but respect your job and know at least the basics and, if you don’t know, say you are a TV reporter being thrown into an NFL assignment you are not familiar with, do some research, ask around or just be quiet.

Anybody can listen and learn.

That has always been one of the secrets to my reporting. I listen to what people are saying and then try to put it all together. Sure, a column is more opinionated but it has at its foundation listening to people and seeing what is really going on. Then ask questions. Short questions, not long  either/or questions. Direct questions.

Allen SI Cover

The iconic photo of Dick Allen by John Iacono - used for a 1972 cover.

The beauty of Sports illustrated through the years was the pictures told a story, then the story told a story because the gifted writers listened and then wrote and the excellent editors followed up with questions of their own to the writer. Same goes with the photographers. As for that Dick Allen juggling cover photo, that just happened, it wasn’t planned but once there was such a photo with personality, a story emerged.

The Sports Illustrated finished product was something that interested sports fans … even if the fans were being “pulled’’ to a story as Peter Carry told me 40 years ago, that story was told in a meaningful fashion.

There are times where writers and readers should not take themselves so seriously, especially in the sports field. Have some fun. We all love characters in sports. Some of my time spent in interviews is enjoying just the conversation, building a relationship, maybe making a few jokes along the way and then getting to the heart of the matter.

The writers at Sports Illustrated did that and were given freedom by their editors to go in different directions. To read a Curry Kirkpatrick story was entertaining.

Make no mistake, serious subjects need to be tackled in a serious way, but publications need to constantly stop trying to hit people over the head. Instead, try getting into their heads with a story worth reading.

Rest In Peace SI.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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