by Keith Aksel
In the United States, we are used to the notion of a “Big Four” sports world: the idea that there are four major American sports, while every other sport wallows in relative obscurity. The general consensus seems to be that the big four is made up of the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, simply based on the leagues’ relative wealth. But, the idea of a Big Four is a new one which simplifies a sports world that has not always been so plainly ruled by a few major leagues.
One interesting window into fan interests is the famous sports magazine Sports Illustrated. Although we blast SI on this website from time to time, SI has contributed a great deal to how Americans consume sports information. Since its first issues, SI featured a number of different figures on its iconic cover, and those covers can help fans understand a little more about how the idea of a Big Four is far from a fixed reality. Are SI covers a good gauge of fan interest? Perhaps, but the covers might also reveal something more to us about the magazine itself.
Until recently, sports interest in the U.S. has been diffuse. In other words, in the old days there was no Big Four in sports, and sports publications and newspapers reported on a number of athletic events that often had nothing to with football, baseball, basketball, or hockey. In 1954, the first year of SI’s existence, what we know as the Big Four received relatively little attention on the magazine’s covers. Even in the heyday of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, SI only featured baseball on the magazine’s cover once during its 1954 run (which was abbreviated since the first issue came out in August). That cover was actually the first-ever SI issue, which featured a Milwaukee Braves game under the lights. Instead, SI usually profiled a plethora of other sports that today would be laughable if the magazine put them on the cover. Along with a couple of football covers, SI featured rodeo, surf fishing, and sailing on its covers in 1954, activities that fans today might question as legitimate “sports.” But those obscurities are just the beginning. Other covers from that first year feature a young girl in an equestrian competition, while another featured a pheasant-hunting spaniel!
If SI is any indication, a more diverse set of sports mattered to fans in 1954 as compared to today. SI’s early issues also reveal that the magazine has remade itself significantly since 1954. At its start, SI was a magazine more interested in chronicling the breadth of sports in America rather than just focusing on popular spectator sports. The magazine’s contents are a testament to that fact. The weekly articles had less to do with profiling the great stars in sports than it did chronicling how sports were played across the country. SI was thus more about sports and less about personalities. Each week the magazine contained the feature “The Wonderful World of Sport…as the Camera Sees It.” That world contained more than just star American Football League or Olympic athletes. It also contained activities like safari and horseback riding. In this, SI was literally attempting to “illustrate” the world of American sports.
SI issues in general in the old days rarely focused on a great athlete. The covers were often of a nameless fisherman or swimmer. The important thing for the early SI issues wasn’t the greatness of the athlete, but the fact that they simply were athletes of some kind. SI strove to make clear that the average horseback rider was just as important to the sports landscape as was the Kentucky Derby winner. In contrast to the early days, today’s SI seems more like a running hagiography of big-time athletes.
The early issues also contained common-man columns, like “Jimmy Jemail’s Hotbox,” which asked a general question to a mix of everyday people and celebrities. As proof that we fans will never get off certain topics, one week’s hotbox question asked “Are today’s baseball players sissies compared to the old-timers?” In the August 30 issue, they somehow asked South Korean President Syngman Rhee “Who are the Biggest Liars, Golfers or Fishermen?” (Rhee replied that fishermen don’t lie, they tell “beautiful stories”).
In all, the 1954 issues of SI seem to chronicle a different sports world than what we know from SI today. The focus on the general sporting world seemed to be more important than playing up Big Four sporting events in the moment. There are pros and cons to the magazine’s loss of breadth. We are inundated with big time sports news now everywhere we look. SI is just one of many outlets that can produce the latest breaking news and predictions. Would it be better for SI to go back to its roots as a more common-man sports publication? Maybe, maybe not. Did anyone really care about images of amateur shooting events, even in the 1950s issues? In any case, today’s narrow focus on greatness in sports reporting seems like something that fans might benefit from thinking about in a long view.
 There is a Big Four Sporcle quiz which is super challenging, but worth ten minutes of your time: http://www.sporcle.com/games/g/us_sportsteams
 “Jimmy Jemail’s Hotbox,” Sports Illustrated, August 30, 1954, 2.