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Bob Ryan

There was a lot to like about Sports Illustrated — back when it truly was Sports Illustrated

The very first cover of Sports Illustrated was a simple shot of Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews taking a swing at home plate in a crowded County Stadium.Sports Illustrated

There’s been a lot of news lately about the venerable publication Sports Illustrated, none of it good.

The odious parent company that purchased the magazine from Time Inc. a while back has announced a massive staff layoff and there is a fear that it may disappear forever. I readily admit that a weekly magazine in which many stories concern events a week old is an idea whose time has come and gone. We now live in a world in which both instant news reporting and instant analysis are available to all. But I am one of many sports zealots who eagerly awaited the appearance of Sports Illustrated in our mailbox each Thursday so we could read the extraordinary prose of its writers. I kid you not when I say that if you had asked me at the age of 20 what I wanted out of life I would have said, “I want to write for Sports Illustrated and be the next Frank Deford.”

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A fantastic opportunity opened up when I became a Globe summer intern in 1968, and guess what? I’m kinda still here. But imagine my excitement when barely a month into my first big assignment, which was covering the Celtics, Deford showed up for a story.

We are six months shy of SI’s 70th anniversary, and I invite you to take a look with me inside the maiden issue of Aug. 16, 1954. Let’s just say that Sports Illustrated, the newest effort from Time Inc., demonstrated great ambition in its 144-page inaugural issue. Welcome to the mid-’50s.

First, the cover. SI became famous for its portrait covers, but the very first was a simple shot of Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews taking a swing at home plate in a crowded County Stadium.

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There were three primary articles: “The Miracle Mile At Vancouver,” “The Battle of Bubble Gum,” and “The Golden Age is Now.”

The mile in question was the epic race at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in which Roger Bannister (3:58.8) and John Landy (3:59.6) became the first men to run sub-four-minute miles in the same race. “Bubble Gum,” as you might think, concerned the battle between Haelan Laboratories and the Topps Chewing Gum Company for supremacy in the baseball card business. “The Golden Age” had to do with the proposition that the ‘50s had eclipsed the ‘20s as the true “Golden Age of Sport.”

There was a photo essay entitled “The Dashing Duke of Edinburgh,” and yes, that happened to be Prince Philip, whose documented sporting exploits included high jumping in prep school. Hey, who knew? He was also pictured while participating in polo, cricket, sailing, rowing, and flying.

Photography also took front and center with wonderful photos from Rocky Marciano’s successful defense of his heavyweight crown against Ezzard Charles.

I loved Jimmy Jemail’s “Hotbox,” the first in a long-running weekly probe whose first question for the man or woman on the street was, “What sport provokes the most arguments in your house?” There were 10 respondents, and three said golf. The other answers were “the doubleheader,” swimming, fishing, football, wrestling, horse racing, and “any sport on television.”

SI featured eight columnists, starting with Red Smith, who wrote about Leo Durocher. A particular highlight was the contribution of Herbert Warren Wind, who chose to republish the final column by Grantland Rice, who had died five weeks earlier. The subject was a key putt made by Bobby Jones in the 1929 US Open.

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I also like what was billed as “The column of the Week” by Gordon Cobbledick of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, it being a treatise on the phenomenon of the beanball in baseball, a topic still relevant today.

How interesting that the SI masthead boasted of “special contributors” in baseball, boating, bowling, football, golf, horse racing, hunting and fishing, nature, tennis, and travel. Notice any curious omissions? I guess they thought no one cared about basketball or hockey. I wonder if The Cooz or Rocket Richard were miffed?

There was an entire section entitled “The Great Outdoors,” and that subject was a prominent SI area of discussion for many years.

I mean, if you were interested in “The Best Vacation Trout Fishing” a Mr. John McDonald was happy to inform you (hint: book a trip to Yellowstone).

There was “Scorecard,” with a summary of the week’s sports happenings. You learned that Babe Zaharias had picked up the $1,000 first prize for her triumph in the “Women’s Professional Division of the Tam o’ Shanter Tournament.” And it was good to know an exhibition football score: Washington Redskins 52, Eleventh Naval District All-Stars 0 (Nope, didn’t make it up).

It’s always fun to peruse vintage advertising. Bob Hope was pushing Catalina sweaters. Ford was preparing us for the Thunderbird, “a sports car that can make the tachometer needle climb like a homesick angel.” Oh, have any of you car buffs ever heard of the Kaiser Darrin 161? Well, it was “for a carefully selected few who know and appreciate what a sport car should look like and how it should perform.”

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And there was much, much more.

Publisher H.H.S. Phillips, Jr. spelled out the SI mission: “It is our hope and our promise that in some tomorrow you will no longer think of Sports Illustrated as Time Inc.’s newest baby, but as the accepted and essential weekly reporter of the Wonderful World of Sport.”

That is exactly what it became. Sports Illustrated spoke to the second half of the 20th century. All who had anything to do with it had every reason to be proud.


Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.