When it comes to SI covers, it's all about the emotional imprint they leave. With that in mind, one man (with a little help from his friends) picks his 32 favorites of all time
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
There are only a few things I'm sure about. One of those is that 32 is the best number in sports. Thirty-two is Jim Brown running, Sandy Koufax throwing thunderbolts, Magic Johnson on the fast break. Thirty-two is a Bill Walton outlet pass, Steve Carlton breaking off a nasty slider, Josh Hamilton coming all the way back.
That's why there are 32 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers here. The SI cover has meant a lot to me ever since I was a kid racing out to the mailbox to get my issue. Who is on the cover this week? George Brett? Michael Jordan? A rabid dog? A bunch of words? My world revolved around the cover of SI. And it wasn't only my world. The SI cover has come to represent glory and jinxes, sports heroes and huge disappointments, shocking stories and moments of triumph.
So I put together my 32 favorites. Well, I didn't do it alone. I went to some people here at the magazine and some of my writer friends, people who have also found their worlds sparked by an SI cover. This isn't a list of the 32 best covers. (After all, how does one choose between, say, the action-packed Sidney Moncrief or the graceful Dr. J that appear on the preceding pages?) There is too much that goes into a good cover to choose the "best"—there's emotional value, artistic value, thepower of the moment. No, these are my 32 favorite covers.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: THE COVERS
The stars. The triumphs. The controversies. And, of course, the jinxes. For a complete collection of SI's covers, check out this handsome anthology, available wherever books are sold or at SI.com/thecoversbook
32 Pro Football Issue
September 8, 1980
THURSDAY WAS SPORTS ILLUSTRATED day, the day it showed up in our mailbox. And the anticipation was the best part of the day. In those early teenage years I needed something special every day, something to get me through, something to get me closer to the weekend. I'd stare up at the clock on the wall at school, grumbling to myself about how the minute hand didn't seem to be moving, and I'd think about who might be on the cover. It could be anyone. There was a special-guest-star feel to it, sort of like how you never knew who was going to be on The Love Boat. Yes, it could be anyone—though the reality tended to be less romantic. In the case of SI, it was often Muhammad Ali; in the case of The Love Boat, it was usually Florence Henderson.
I grew up in Cleveland, and throughout my childhood there was never a Cleveland athlete on the cover. Until this one: the Pro Football Issue. There's one of my heroes, Dave Logan, reaching for a ball with one hand as a Pittsburgh defensive back stretched back hopelessly. Logan had the best hands of any receiver I ever saw. I have no doubt he will catch the ball and beat the world champion Steelers. I have no doubt. That is the first SI cover that I remember getting, probably because it's the first Cleveland cover of my childhood.
31 Jim Thome
September 27, 2010
THIS WAS the cover that sparked the idea of putting together a list of my favorites. Every element of cover greatness is there, isn't it? Blue sky. Packed house. New stadium in Minnesota. The ball just coming off Thome's bat, another home run. It's perfect. The image captures all of the magic of a pennant race. And, yeah, I wrote the story. So what? The cover is also an homage to the first SI cover, of Eddie Mathews, which you will see a little later.
30 Tom Verducci
March 14, 2005
THE FAVORITE of SI senior writer Tom Verducci, naturally, is the one that features his five-day stint with the Blue Jays. "Bet that's a unique response," he writes. The good news is that Tom is writing better than ever and has avoided the SI Jinx. (That seems to have begun as a pop-culture reference in 1955, when Alpine skier Jill Kinmont was paralyzed in a fall just days after appearing on the cover of SI. Two years later a WHY OKLAHOMA IS UNBEATABLE cover was followed with a Sooners loss to Notre Dame.)
29 Dick Allen
June 12, 1972
THIS IS the favorite cover of comedy writer Will Shepard, who has produced cartoons such as Word Girl and is a contributing writer to The Onion: "I mean, come on. Allen is just leading the league in all kinds of awesome here. It may be the rarest cover in sports-journalism history, only because I'm fairly sure we will never see something like this ever again. And I love—LOVE—that they obviously retouched his batting helmet but not the cigarette." My favorite part is the subhead: CHICAGO'S DICK ALLEN JUGGLES HIS IMAGE. Um, he's juggling. But his image as a surly hitting machine seems intact.
June 11, 1973
I DESPISE this one. No offense intended, but it looks like it was designed in some quilting class (and by "no offense," I mean I do not wish to offend quilters). But I think that makes a fascinating cover for the list. Secretariat's run to the Triple Crown is one of the seminal sporting events of the last half century. And the cover was a major dud. Flowers? A double photo? I guess the point is that sometimes you miss. And while it stinks to miss, it does make you realize how special the successes really are.
27 Bobby Murcer and Ron Blomberg
July 2, 1973
THIS IS senior writer Jon Heyman's favorite cover because he was a Yankees fan growing up. When your team is on the cover of SI, it creates all sorts of emotions. Pride. Joy. Nervousness. ("Are we ready for this?") When the Cleveland Indians made the cover in 1987, it felt like I had made the cover. It felt as if after all the hard work I had put into rooting for terrible Indians teams, we had finally arrived. And after those '87 Indians lost 101 games, it became apparent that neither of us had been ready.
26 Zack Greinke
May 4, 2009
SOMETIMES, THINGS work out better when they don't work out. Greinke refused to pose for it; instead SI photographer Robert Beck got this wonderful shot from above and behind, Greinke's face unobservable. It turned out to be the perfect view of Greinke, who has dealt with various social anxieties and had never liked being in the public eye. In fact, Greinke has often said that he hated being on the cover, mainly because it prompted more people to ask him for an autograph.
25 Len Bias
June 30, 1986
SENIOR WRITER George Dohrmann picked this cover. He wrote, "Len Bias was my favorite, the one with him shooting the free throw and the years he lived under it. Headline was DEATH OF A DREAM. So simple but said it all." This is what the best magazine covers do, they take an event—in this case, something tragic like the death of Len Bias—and make it universal. He could have been one of the greatest ever. And to me the cover is completed by the haunting epitaph below the photo: len bias 1963--1986.
24 Joe Namath
June 16, 1969
THIS COVER is the favorite of senior writer Peter King. It accompanied William Johnson's story about Namath telling NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that he would quit before he would sell his bar, where bookies and gamblers hung out. The story itself is stuck in its time—Namath did not quit, the story blew over, and the whole thing now feels rather pointless. But the grainy image feels timeless. I think that SI should go with a black-and-white cover photo now and then.
23 Browns Win NFL Championship
January 4, 1965
THIS ISEsquire writer (and Clevelander) Scott Raab's favorite, and there's a rich story behind it. Legend has it that SI had a beautiful color cover ready to go when the heavily favored Colts won. But, of course, the Browns won, and this black-and-white shot of Frank Ryan appeared instead. I have not been able to confirm the story, but I choose to believe it. (To be honest, it does look a bit thrown together.) The story makes the victory that much sweeter—and this is the city's last championship.
22 Miami Football
June 12, 1995
HERE'S WHY this is the favorite of senior writer Thomas Lake: "I'm partial to covers that make strong and possibly controversial statements. Also, my memory was better when I was a child than it is now. Hence a bias toward old covers. The all-text cover that promised to explain WHY THE UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI SHOULD DROP FOOTBALL is the one that sticks most in my mind. I couldn't not go read that story." The all-word images—like the one in October about the confessions of agent Josh Luchs or the 1982 piece about football player Don Reese's cocaine addiction—have their own power.
21 Nebraska vs. Oklahoma
November 20, 1978
STAFF WRITER Lars Anderson picked this cover for very personal reasons—which are the best reasons of all. "As a seven-year-old," he writes, "I went to this game in Lincoln with my dad. In one of the last conversations we had before he passed away, we recalled that wonderful day and that SI cover. Sitting here in my home office in Birmingham right now, I have one SI cover framed on my wall. I've written several cover stories over the years, but only Rick Berns shredding Oklahoma is on my wall."
20 Carl Yastrzemski
August 21, 1967
LONGTIME SI writer John Garrity. He says, "My favorite is generic—the close-up of a slugger's follow-through on a home run stroke, his trailing knee practically on the ground, his power arm as straight as a board, his eyes tracking the mighty blow. I could cite numerous examples, but let's settle on Carl Yastrzemski." After this cover appeared, Yaz hit .417 with nine homers in the final month of the season, almost single-handedly carrying the Red Sox to the pennant. It's like an antijinx.
19 Julius Erving
May 4, 1987
THIS IS the favorite cover of senior writer Damon Hack: "My first sports hero, was Julius (the Doctor) Errrrrrrrrrrrrrving. SI put him on this cover when I was 15 years old. It said, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES. The picture is simple too. Erving in his warmups, smiling and leaning back and to the side. A little gray is visible in what was once the most famous Afro in hoops. In 1987 his cut was much shorter. No matter. He was my guy." The subhead is also wonderful: JULIUS ERVING BOWS OUT IN STYLE.
18 Jack Lambert
July 30, 1984
THIS IS senior writer Jon Wertheim's favorite cover. And there's really no need to explain why, is there? It's funny: When you ask football experts, they will often tell you that the heart of those great Steel Curtain defenses of the 1970s was Hall of Famer Jack Ham. But if you ask fans the same question, they will almost all certainly say Hall of Famer Lambert. Both Jacks were great ... but Lambert had the missing teeth and that feral stare.
17 Brandi Chastain
July 19, 1999
LET'S NOT kid anybody: SI—a standard-setter when it has come to dealing with race, money, drugs, corruption and countless other issues—has had a more ambiguous history with women and sports. In 2009 there was exactly one SI cover on which the predominant image was a woman: Bar Refaeli, on the Swimsuit Issue. This cover of Chastain is my favorite SI cover with a woman on it because it blends so many things: the shirt in her hand, the pure joy on her face and the single word YES!
16 Jack Nicklaus
April 21, 1986
IT IS sometimes difficult to tell where the moment ends and the cover begins. That is to say: Is this a great cover? Or is it great because it was a seminal moment? I don't know. All I know is that I love this cover because Jack Nicklaus looks old (he was 46), and yet you know that this old man won the Masters, his 18th major championship. Tiger Woods remains four majors away, and it's no sure thing that he will get there. It might be hard to see in the little photo, but there's a tiny golden bear on Nicklaus's shirt.
15 Brett Favre
January 21, 2008
SNOW MAKES football awesome. No exceptions. Say snow and football, and my mind goes racing to 20 awesome images—the guy on the snowplow in New England, Keith Byars doing snow angels in the end zone against Dallas, Leon Lett's mental meltdown in that same Thanksgiving game, Bob Hayes running around with his hands in his pockets. This is the cover that best takes advantage of snow. That's Brett Favre behind the blizzard. Will he throw a touchdown? Will he throw a pick? Yes!
14 Dwight Gooden
April 15, 1985
HOW DOES Gooden do that with his arm? I know it's an optical illusion. Still, sometimes an SI cover just grabs you with an image—there's a remarkable shot of the Giants' Tim Lincecum in a fully elastic stretch that conjures the same magic—and it brings the moment to life. Dwight Gooden in 1985 was as awesome a young pitcher as any in the history of the game. He went 24--4 with a 1.53 ERA and eight shutouts. The cover photo by Walter Iooss Jr. is a snapshot of greatness, however fleeting.
13 Bizarro Baseball
May 26, 2008
THIS IS the favorite cover of senior writer Gary Smith, and why not? It is always fun when SI goes off the board, tries to do something completely different. They used to do this a lot in the early days: There's a 1954 shot of a dog with a bird in its mouth, a '63 shot of Bob Hope in a Cleveland Indians jersey and a '69 shot of a bear with the inarguably gripping headline THE GRIZZLY—ENEMY OF MAN. MUST HE BE EXTERMINATED? The bear was followed one week later with a cover featuring a boy and a girl riding on some kind of Jet Ski. Some SI people needed a little more sleep in '69.
The 2008 baseball season truly was bizarro. It was late May, and the Rays, who had only six months earlier changed their name from the Devil Rays, were in first place and the Yankees were last (and would miss the playoffs for the only time since the 1994 strike). Dissatisfied with the available photos—not an uncommon problem involving the Rays, given their dreadful history and the even bleaker backdrops of their home park, the Trop—SI Group Editor Terry McDonell took up the suggestion of editors Greg Kelly and Christian Stone and commissioned the first comic-book cover in the magazine's history. The cover, drawn by renowned DC Comics artist Mark Bagley (and delivered, remarkably, 24 hours later), features Carl Crawford lifting up Derek Jeter with one hand while Bizarro Superman watches. Behind, you can see a billboard for Buzz Beer.
12 Tony Conigliaro
June 22, 1970
ONE OF the most jarring covers, this ran almost three years after Boston's Conigliaro had his impossibly promising career derailed when he was hit in the eye by a Jack Hamilton pitch. Tony C had already hit 104 big league homers, and he was just 22 years old. He would come back after a year of rehabilitation, and he hit 56 homers for Boston in 1969 and '70. But he was traded to California at the end of the '70 season, and his eyesight and career were never the same. He hit only six more home runs.
11 Sports After 9/11
September 24, 2001
THIS POST-9/11 cover is the favorite of senior writer Tim Layden. He writes, "The illustration with a flag draped over empty seats with the tagline THE WEEK THAT SPORTS STOOD STILL almost could have stood on its own—like a poster—expressing the sentiment of that week." I agree, sometimes a simple image can bring it all home. Even though the tragedy of 9/11 had nothing to do with sports, if you think about it, sports as much as anything else bring people together in America.
10 Steffi Graf
July 15, 1991
THE FAVORITE of ESPN writer Mechelle Voepel, who writes, "You can't help but notice how much more often it seemed women were on the cover the first several years of the magazine. Of course, they were [on it] for the kinds of stories that wouldn't be done now, like how to train your dog at home." As for what makes this one special, Mechelle writes, "Steffi screaming to the sky after winning Wimbledon.... It was that side of her we rarely saw: real, unrestrained joy."
9 Mark Fidrych
June 6, 1977
EVERY SO often a cover can capture something almost ineffable. The Mark Fidrych phenomenon is a difficult thing to explain to people who aren't old enough to have lived through it. He just showed up out of nowhere in 1976, which was something athletes could still do then. Nobody knew his minor league numbers. Nobody had followed him in the amateur draft. He was 21 years old when he made his first start with absolutely no fanfare against Cleveland on May 15. He threw a two-hitter, and the Tigers won the game 2--1. And a magical summer began.
And that's what it was. Magical. It wasn't just that this quirky young pitcher came along, winning game after game (he won nine of his first 10). It wasn't just that he talked to baseballs and smoothed out pitching mounds with his hands and made big league batters hit the ball on the ground time after time after time. No. Every so often someone comes along who reminds us that sports are fun. But how do you capture that? How do you capture childlike joy on a magazine cover?
This is how you do it. This cover, which ran the following season, is probably the most fun in SI history. There's the bright yellow happiness that is Big Bird from Sesame Street. And there's Mark (the Bird) Fidrych smiling broadly as he is about to pitch. If you look at the cover closely, it sure looks as if Big Bird is smiling too.
8 Lynn Swann
January 26, 1976
THIS IS SI senior editor Mark Mravic's favorite. "This by no means is influenced by my lifelong love of the Steelers or the fact that I made a giant wall poster of this cover in seventh-grade art class," he explains. "Favorite doesn't necessarily mean best, but I'd argue that it is the best, for the beauty of the picture, shot by Heinz Kluetmeier, combined with the momentousness of the event. While Swann's catch didn't lead to a score, the cover captures the thrill of Dallas-Pittsburgh, the first great Super Bowl."
7 Reds Win World Series
November 3, 1975
I THINK this shot of reliever Will McEnaney jumping into the arms of catcher Johnny Bench is the best pure photo to ever appear on the cover of SI. It was shot by John Iacono, and it strikes me as universal. You don't need to know anything about baseball, the Reds or how great the Series was to know that something wonderful has happened. It has always struck me that the words Reds win are nowhere to be found. The point was the joy and thrill of that World Series came not from winning but from playing in it.
6 The Inaugural Issue
August 16, 1954
THIS IS the first SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover, and it is senior writer Michael Bamberger's favorite. His explanation: "Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves is taking a full cut before a filled house. A rookie named Henry Aaron is in there somewhere. Midsummer, mid-century, the ump in a blazer. All that promise." It is worth noting that within two weeks of this issue hitting the newsstand, Mathews was struck by a pitch and missed six days. Jinxed from the start.
5 Sidney Moncrief
February 13, 1978
WHEN I put out a request to writers to offer their favorite covers, I did not expect three—SI's Phil Taylor, Michael Farber and Alex Wolff—to choose this striking image of Sidney Moncrief dunking for Arkansas against Texas. Wolff's explanation: "I've asked [photographer] Manny Millan over the years how he got the shot, and he's always replied with a delphic shrug—one of those it-was-just-one-of-those-things" looks.... I love the pre-explosion energy of the pose and the look in Moncrief's eyes."
4 Tiger Woods
April 16, 2001
SOMETIMES I wonder: In today's era of hype—when September games between teams that might be good are blown up into Games of the Century, when well-played contests become "instant classics" (have we really run out of time and patience to allow things to age into actual classics?)—how can we capture the simple beauty of a moment? Well, there's the simple grandeur of Tiger Woods, driving 18 at Augusta as he is about to win his fourth consecutive major. With a single word: MASTERPIECE.
3 The Catch
January 18, 1982
THIS IS the favorite of SI senior writer Jim Trotter, who explains: "Growing up in the Bay Area as a 49ers fan, it was a huge moment when Dwight Clark skied over Everson Walls to earn the franchise's first trip to the Super Bowl. I would imagine that most people's opinions are provincial." To me, that photo (another Walter Iooss Jr. classic) is so good, so perfectly framed, that it is better than seeing the play on video. Here, Clark seems to be six feet off the ground, which is how I like to remember the play.
2 Muhammad Ali
October 13, 1980
ONLY MICHAEL JORDAN, with 49, has graced more covers than Ali—38 at last check. Number 29 is the favorite of Esquire writer Chris Jones. His explanation: "I love the one of a broken Muhammad Ali, sitting on his stool, totally defeated, at the hands of Larry Holmes, if I'm remembering right.... I've always found something more important in losses than wins, and losing in boxing hurts more than it hurts in any other sport. And, in the way I like losses more than wins, I've always liked endings more than beginnings."
1 Miracle on Ice
March 3, 1980
THIS IS the favorite cover of New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro and SI staff writer Brian Cazeneuve. It's also my favorite—just like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey victory is my favorite sports story. It's also the favorite cover of broadcaster Al Michaels, who of course made the "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" call as the team beat the Soviets. Michaels was curious what words SI would use to describe the miracle. "And when I pulled the magazine out of my mailbox," he says, "and saw that the cover contained no words, I remember thinking, Perfect! The picture said everything."