With the jobs of people who produce Sports Illustrated seemingly in limbo — the Arena Group, which operates the magazine and its related properties, said on Friday that it was laying off a “significant number” of staff members — sports journalism was dealt a terrible blow.
The magazine is famous for its vivid writing, dramatic photography, witty captions and deep, investigative reports. It also had a place in sports collecting lore, producing several detachable gatefolds of cards that appeared in four issues during the mid-1950s.
Sports Illustrated included special sets of baseball cards in its first two editions in August 1954, and two more in consecutive issues during April 1955.
The cards in the inaugural and second editions of the fledgling magazine (Aug. 16 and 23, 1954), featured 27 cards each in a gatefold that could be detached from the publication.
Sports Illustrated reprised the marketing ploy in its April 11 and April 18 editions in 1955, but limited the promotion to eight cards that had designs from that year’s Topps set.
In the Aug. 16, 1954, inaugural edition of Sports Illustrated, on the page opposite the center gatefold of the 27 cards, writer Jerome Weidman observed that baseball cards “are treasured in a manner that makes Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s more unbuttoned outpourings in the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’ seem like cruel indifference.”
Weidman could be forgiven for waxing poetic.
That inaugural edition of Sports Illustrated featured Mathews taking a swing during a June 9, 1954, game at County Stadium in Milwaukee. The other two people featured in the photo are New York Giants catcher Wes Westrum and home plate umpire Augie Donatelli.
The Giants won the game 4-0, as winning pitcher Johnny Antonelli went the distance and improved to 8-2, pitching a seven-hit shutout. Antonelli was also in that group of Sports Illustrated cards in the magazine’s first issue.
That first edition was loaded with star power, with Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Richie Ashburn and Gil Hodges among the players featured.
The cards were paper-thin, but the set was thick with stars.
Other big names included Al Rosen, the 1953 American League MVP. Vern Law, Harvey Haddix, Wally Moon, Ted Kluszewski, Hank Sauer and Mel Parnell were among the other notables in that original group of cards.
The following week, Sports Illustrated produced a second foldout of cards. The 27 cards depicted the New York Yankees, who were coming off their record fifth straight World Series championship.
Fifteen of those cards showcased the Yankees in the colorful 1954 Topps design, including future Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto.
Another pair of future Hall of Famers — Mickey Mantle and Enos Slaughter — along with 10 other teammates, were produced in black-and-white versions that were similar to the ’54 Topps layout. It was an acknowledgment of the battle for market supremacy between Topps and Bowman.
Interestingly, the Sports Illustrated set offered a Topps “update,” featuring Slaughter in Yankees garb — the 1954 Bowman set still showed him as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, where he had played since breaking into the majors in 1938 and remained through 1953.
Jerry Coleman, Tom Gorman, Allie Reynolds, Harry Byrd and Gil McDougald are included in the Sports Illustrated gatefold in ersatz Topps cards but only appeared in Bowman cards in 1954.
Tom Morgan, Irv Noren, Bob Grim, Bob Cerv and Jim McDonald did not appear in either set that year.
The photograph for the Sports Illustrated card of Mantle was taken by George Silk in 1951, when the Mick was a rookie with the Yankees. The photo would grace the cover of the magazine on Aug. 21, 1995, eight days after Mantle’s death.
The legendary writer Robert Creamer, one of Sports Illustrated’s first hires who penned stories and put together the magazine’s “Scorecard” section until his retirement in 1984, probably should have known better, but he may have feigned ignorance about the battle between Topps and Bowman.
“Sports Illustrated has added prize items of its own to fill out the Yankees squad full strength,” Creamer wrote in the magazine’s Aug. 23, 1954, edition. “Front and back, of those Yankees for whom Topps — for one reason or another — did not print cards.”
Players featured in Apr. 11, 1955 edition included future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Warren Spahn, a future National League MVP (Dick Groat) and one of the heroes of the 1954 World Series (Dusty Rhodes).
The following week, the eight players included stars such as Al Rosen, Roy Sievers, Ferris Fain and Bob Turley.
The cards benefited both Topps and Sports Illustrated. Topps would ultimately win the baseball card market and buy out Bowman, while Sports Illustrated would set the gold standard for sports journalism.