Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Deep in the Vault

The big news in the world of the Internet, or at least in the corners of it that I inhabit, was Sports Illustrated's opening of what it calls the Vault last Thursday. This presents every page of every single issue of SI for viewing, including all those glorious cigarette and bourbon ads. It's like having those big green bound library volumes right on your own home computer.

I went straight to the first issue I ever received, reporting the results of the 1975 Kentucky Derby. I was nine years old at the time, and this was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, so I felt honor-bound to read the thing cover to cover. I thought that's just what you did when you got a magazine. Reading the issue now, what first struck me was how poorly designed it was, or rather, how little designed it was. Except for the bonus article in the back, all the headlines were the same black all-caps font, and even the same size. The designs were all very modular, with every photo rectangular. Many pages were just sheets of black type, without even a pullquote to break the monotony.

Even the fabled photos - the magazine's raison d'etre - were surprisingly weak at times. For my third issue, the cover story was on Filbert Bayi and his record-setting mile run (I don't think such things make the cover of SI any more). Bayi's run took place at night, in Jamaica, so in each of the photos he's surrounded by endless blackness. It's as if he had run a mile in a coal mine. Yet SI didn't blink and anointed him their cover boy anyway.

This is a problem when seen in light of those gorgeous ads. Warmly lit snowbound photos of people enjoying Christmas and Old Grand-Dad. Black-eyed Tareyton smokers who'd rather fight than switch. People disembarking from their sailboats at dusk to go enjoy some Cutty Sark. And my favorite, the New Yorker-style color cartoons of people on the brink of disaster whose insurance company was "New England Life, of course. Why?"

For a preteen living in the suburbs, this was the height of sophistication. Sure, there were great articles about Billy Martin and Steve Stone by the likes of Pat Jordn and Roy Blount Jr., and headlines with knotty puns like "Playing Ketchup Out West" (for a piece on the San Diego Padres, who were then owned by Ray Kroc of McDonald's). But man, those ads were really transporting. Would that the magazine had measured up.

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