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The Original Sports Magazine

Friday, July 5, 2013

Before the advent of television, Americans relied on sports writers to keep up with their favorite athletes and events. Of all the publications that arose to fill this need, none did so earlier or better than Sport magazine.

I haven’t read the sports pages with any care for decades. I began to ignore them when I first started reading The New York Times, lo, many moons ago. That once-august paper’s sports pages were never quite first class; its writers found a way to drain the joy out of the contemplation of what was supposed to be a jolly pastime. I used to enjoy Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon on sports, and for a time I looked forward to Roger Angell’s pieces on baseball in The New Yorker. In Herbert Warren Wind, that magazine had a superior writer on golf and tennis; Wind was so good that I could read him on golf, even though I hadn’t the least interest in the sport.

As a reader about sports, my intensity peaked sometime around my fourteenth year. About three years before that, I started reading Sport Magazine, a monthly whose first issue was published in 1946, only a few years before I had begun reading it. I was a boy who had no stamp collection, electric trains, or an interest in science, and I read no books but comic books. Sports were the only thing that interested me — playing them, listening to people talk about them, and with the advent of Sport Magazine, reading about them.

Sport used a lot of color photography, and was the only show in town in sports magazines, having preceded by eight years Sports Illustrated, a magazine I always thought too middle-class and country club in its general outlook. I believe in its early years it carried a column on bridge. The Sporting News, a weekly published out of St. Louis in tabloid format, tended to emphasize the statistical, and in its coverage of minor-league baseball and other sports arcana conveyed rather more than one needed — or at least that I wanted — to know.

Television radically changed the way sports could be written about. Before television, most sports fans did not have an eyewitness experience of games and hence of the more spectacular plays that had taken place during them. We learned about these things second-hand, from sportswriters and radio sportscasters. Sports writing in those days was almost exclusively about descriptions of catches, homers, touchdown runs, tackles, baskets, and the rest. Since the advent of television, when most of us got to see these things from our couches, sportswriters have had to fall back on writing about personalities, financial negotiations, and, with the ugly intrusion of steroids, chemistry.

Sports were the only thing that interested me — playing them, listening to people talk about them, and with the advent of Sport Magazine, reading about them.

Sport Magazine covered the four major sports of the day — baseball, football, basketball, and boxing (which has since dropped away as a major sport) — but also tennis, hockey, golf, and track & field. I wasn’t conscious of bylines as a boy, but I have since learned that among its contributors were Grantland Rice, John Lardner, Roger Kahn, and Dick Schaap. I do recall that the editors all used diminutive versions of their first names; two of the editors were Al (not Allen or Albert) Silverman and Ed (not Edward or Edgar) Fitzgerald.

Sport went in for profiles of contemporary athletes. The era was aglitter with what were not yet called superstars. In baseball, these included Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Bob Feller; in football, Sammy Baugh, Charlie Trippi, and Charlie “Choo-choo” Justice; in basketball, the great Kentucky teams coached by Adolph Rupp, Easy Ed Macaulay, and Bob Cousy; in hockey, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard, his younger and smaller brother Henri “the Pocket Rocket” Richard, Walter “Turk” Broda, Gordie Howe, and others. These articles were not especially deep; from a profile of Yogi Berra I remember a sentence that read, “Yogi likes plenty of pizza in the off-season, where he can usually be found at his pal Phil Rizzuto’s bowling alley.” I read everything in Sport, and felt sadness when I was done with an issue, for I would have to wait another month for more.

Near the front of the magazine was the “Sport Quiz,” which, in a series of multiple-choice questions, tested the reader’s knowledge of sports, contemporary and historical. A poor student then and ever after, this was the only quiz on which I ever wished to do well. I don’t believe I ever had the satisfaction of scoring 100 percent on the “Sport Quiz,” but doing so would have brought more satisfaction than winning a spelling bee or having gone to Choate.

The feature of Sport I most admired were the articles, one in each issue, called the “Sport Classic.” These were about historical figures in sports, some of them alive and no longer competing, others long gone. They appeared not with photographs, but with full-page painted illustrations. (I had friends who cut these out of the magazine and tacked them up to their bedroom walls). More than sixty years later, I can still see the illustration for Man o’ War, the great thoroughbred who dominated racing in the years after World War I. Other Sport Classics were on Jim Thorpe, Ty Cobb, and "Big Bill" Tilden. I gobbled them up, all of them. They provided the first bits of history that truly interested me.

I read everything in Sport, and felt a sadness when I was done with an issue, for I would have to wait another month for more.

I’m not sure when I dropped away from reading Sport. I continued to read it through high school, though with diminished ardor. By the time I went off to college, I was still hooked on sports, and would be throughout my life, but I was now hooked on other games as well, games with such names as literature, philosophy, history, visual art, and serious music.

Sports Illustrated, propelled by Time Inc. money, ultimately knocked Sport out of the box. Over the years, the magazine passed through the hands of ten different owners. Attempts were made to shift its emphasis and approach to the subject of athletic competition that had itself changed radically, owing to television, free-agency, scandal, and big money. Sport Magazine finally folded in 2000. I’m not sure many people noticed.

In my early thirties, in 1970, in response to an essay I published in Harper’s, I received a pleasing letter of praise, on Sport Magazine stationery, from Al Silverman, the magazine’s chief editor. I wrote back to thank him and tell him how important his magazine was to me when I was growing up. I also mentioned that if he ever had a subject he thought I might write about for his magazine, I should be delighted to do so. He wrote back suggesting I do an article for Sport on an All-American running back then at Ohio State, later to play briefly for Green Bay, named John Brockington. The fee was $500. I thought about it and thought about it, and in the end decided that, though I loved to watch superior athletes perform, and enjoy reading about them, writing about them was not for me.

I gave the invitation a pass, and with it surrendered any chance I might have to become a contributor to the magazine that I, an obsessive magazine reader all my life, enjoyed above all others. I have a lingering regret about this. Had I written that article, I could have noted on a resume that, along with The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, the French Commentaire, the German Merkur, I was also a proud contributor to Sport.

Joseph Epstein is THE AMERICAN’s couch potato and the author of the book Essays in Biography.

FURTHER READING: Epstein also writes “March Sanity,” “The Artist Athlete,” and “Batter Up.” Robert McHenry offers “Reflections of a Casual Fan.” Christina Hoff Sommers says “Take Back the Sports Page?” Andrew Rugg blogs “On Sports, Superstition, and Politics,” while Mark J. Perry asks “Where’s the Outrage for Evil Ticketmaster?” answers with “More on Ticketmaster’s Legal ‘Ticket Scalping,’” and also provides “More on the ‘Twisted Logic’ of Racial Diversity in Pro Sports.” Charles Murray argues “Poker is America,” and Jonah Goldberg discusses “The New Journalism.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group  

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