An introduction to Sports Illustrated collecting and the top 50 covers

By John Wyllie

Growing post war interest in more leisure things such as vacations, family outings, day trips, and especially sporting events of all kinds made obvious the need for more organized sports print – local, national and international.

The public wanted to read about its heroes – Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and later Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente on a daily and weekly basis. The public also wanted to keep up with the pennant races, records being set, and stories about not only the big four but skiing, fishing, the Olympics, and local athlete highlights deserving of the national stage.

Team previews at the beginning of the season and box scores in the local paper just weren’t going to cut it anymore. Wanted was a more organized and consistent in-depth approach to sports coverage.

The answer came from TIME, Inc, in 1954. TIME magazine, at the time was primarily a world news publication. Having dabbled in covering major sporting events, it decided it was time to expand its publications and launch a new, singular focus, sport magazine.

On Aug. 16, 1954, Sports Illustrated’s inaugural issue hit the newsstands and a star was born. As a result, TIME is forever recognized as the precursor of Sports Illustrated.

Sports Illustrated has become such a favorite with not only sports readers but also sports collectors. SI’s unique, well thought out, and masterfully illustrated covers have grown in popularity to the extent that collectors are having them graded, signed and organized into some of the most elaborate, highly valued anthologies existing in the sport collector’s market.

Graded Sports Illustrated issues are becoming a favorite with investors and serious collectors. Why? Graded pieces authenticate value much higher than their ungraded counterparts. It’s also a neophyte part of the sports collecting industry where it’s still possible to own the highest graded issue of its kind for a fraction of future dollar estimates. 

Although SI has long been light years ahead of its competition with regard to its award winning photography and feature sports writing, it is the image of its iconic covers that sticks to the brain. It’s the part that most readers find so collectible. Therefore, a great place to start a guide to SI collecting is to put forth an analysis of the top 50 all-time covers.

On the next page is a chart ranking five categories for each cover from 1-10 (with 1 being the least and 10 being the most) in a variety of collector interests – newsstand population scarcity, condition scarcity, cosmetics, collectability, and investment value.

Top 10 Sports Illustrated covers

1. 1961 Roger Maris with ad banner RC – Great action photo, extremely hard to find in excellent condition. If you can get one with the ad banner, you’ve got a good one. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t locate the condition you want. This issue was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

2. 1956 Mickey Mantle RC – including pages 37 thru 40 – Finding a high grade 1956 Mantle is tough enough but only a tenth of those will have the center four pages. Omitted in printing, the missing pages up the ante on this one.

3. 1959 Johnny Unitas RC – The first Unitas cover was issued early in the dark era of Sports Illustrated production. Starting approximately in 1957 and running thru 1969 many SI covers are difficult to find in unmarked condition. The ink seems to mark easily making this one of the most difficult SI issues to find above the grade of 6.0. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

4. 1967 Roberto Clemente RC – Distinct color bands are cosmetic and great looking if you can find one that hasn’t been subjected to handling damage and/or printer errors. One of the most difficult covers to find above the grade of 7.0. Unusual that his first cover would print so late in his career. Currently 8.0 is the highest grade ever recorded by CGC. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

5. 1969 Reggie Jackson RC – I was an avid Oakland fan during this era and really liked the loud, colorful uniforms and the “mustachiod,” gun-slinging mentality Charlie Finley promoted for his team – many years ahead of his time. Jackson, with the classic “swing for the fences” bravado, epitomized the hard-nosed winning attitude. Several of his future covers show the same grace at bat. Very hard to pick up in “better than average” condition. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

6. 1962 Fran Tarkenton RC – This cover illustrates the skilled photography SI had even back in the early days of production. Nice action shot of one of the game’s greatest performers. Unfortunately this one too is subject to a combination of poor quality ink and paper. Hard to find above the grade of 7.0. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

7. 1968 Pete Rose RC – Great aesthetics to this one. Another one of those first covers that seems to elude all but the most avid collectors. Rose continues to enjoy unprecedented popularity so if you can find a newsstand version in decent condition, you’ll have a cover your friends will want to trade for. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

8. 1969 Henry Aaron RC – Another late first appearance of a long time superstar. As with the Clemente, nice copies of newsstand versions are more than rare. Anything better than a 7.0 is a real find. This issue is one of the most collectible in the grade of 8.0 or above due to the popularity of the player and the scarcity of the mag. Currently 8.0 is the highest grade ever recorded by CGC. It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

9. 1963 Cassius Clay RC – Perhaps the most iconic, charismatic, and well known across the globe, Ali would grace the cover of SI more than 30 times, but his 1963 first cover has risen in collectability almost as fast as the legend. Again, subject to poor quality printing, this cover, in newsstand version, is rare above the grade of 7.0. Several 9.4 grades and one 9.6 have turned up in recent months, but if you can grab one reasonably priced at 8.0 or above, you’ll be glad you did It was printed during SI’s “dark period.”

10. 1960 Jim Brown RC – Same printing issues as the 1959 Unitas. Extremely difficult to find – in fact only two of this issue have ever been submitted for grading. Any newsstand version in reasonable condition is highly collectible.

John Wyllie is a dealer of Sports Illustrated magazine and also a contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Wylliejohn@yahoo.com.

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