While there are others that have featured more famous athletes, more impactful moments, or more immediately recognizable photography, the history of Sports Illustrated covers begins with a simple moment in time from mid-season baseball game played in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The initial cover photo was taken by Mark Kauffman on June 9, 1954, and depicts Milwaukee Braves slugger Eddie Mathews taking a mighty swing against a non-pictured New York Giants hurler, as the crowded Milwaukee County Stadium grandstands rise in the background and the lights sparkle down from above, illuminating the National Pastime.
In perhaps the first-ever instance of the “Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx”, the Braves lost that day’s game to the Giants 4-0, and both franchises would leave their respective cities within a dozen years. Also of note, that first issue of Sports Illustrated did not include a story about the game or the Milwaukee Braves.
Launched by Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce to target the growing spectator sports audience of the 1950’s, the very first issue of Sports Illustrated was published on August 16th, 1954, more than two months after the cover photo was taken.
Not to be confused with two earlier, and ultimately unsuccessful magazines named Sports Illustrated, this new version built on the Time, Inc. established model that saw success with Time, Fortune, and Life magazines. Initially targeted heavily towards upper-class activities like polo, yachting, and safaris, the magazine also mixed in feature stories on growing sports like football, basketball, and, of course, baseball.
Sports Illustrated struggled to gain ground and develop a consistent voice in the early days, and would lose money for parent company Time, Inc. for its first 12 years. Things began to change in the 1960’s with the appointment of Andre Laguerre as managing editor. He emphasized quality long-form storytelling, full-color photography of current events, and high levels of editorial formatting and production. The magazine was also one of the first media outlets to fully embrace the burgeoning sport of professional football in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Soon, Sports Illustrated became the nation’s favorite weekly sports resource, with writers like Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Steve Rushin, Rick Reilly, Peter King, and countless others garnering fame and accolades as some of the best of their generations. Faces In The Crowd, The Point After, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, and Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year became popular features.
As the world moved into a digital age, print publications like Sports Illustrated struggled to adapt, and while they shifted a considerable amount of content online, the printed magazine has diminished from a weekly publication to just 16 issues per year. Still, finding a place on the cover of one of those issues remains a source of pride.
Celebrities, non-athletes, and even presidents would grace the cover over the years. Michael Jordan was the most popular cover athlete, adorning the front of Sports Illustrated 50 times, followed by 40 appearances from Muhammad Ali. The Los Angeles Lakers are the most featured team on the cover, while baseball the most popular sport.
While there are more iconic Sports Illustrated covers, Eddie Mathews and the Milwaukee Braves are the only ones that can claim to be the first.