erik lundegaard

A Few Thoughts on the History of Sports Illustrated's 'Sportsman of the Year'

Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year

1954, 1967, 1996.

I was simply looking to see if Secretariat was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1973 and got lost in SI's coverage of its covers: every Sportsman/men or Sportswoman/women of the Year between 1954 (Roger Bannister) and 2015 (Serena Williams). It's an interesting list.

First, no Secretariat. No animals. Just people. That year they gave it to Jackie Stewart, the race car driver, rather than the horse who won the Triple Crown with times, in each race, that still haven't been broken. 

Some titles, you assume, SI would want back: Lance Armstrong in 2002, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Joe Paterno in 1986.

That's another thing: More than a few coaches here, mostly college, mostly basketball and football. No baseball managers made the cut:

  • 2011: Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski
  • 1997: Dean Smith
  • 1993: Don Shula (the only pro coach)
  • 1986: Joe Paterno
  • 1972: John Wooden (shared w/Billie Jean King)
  • 1963: Pete Rozelle

King was the first woman, by the way, 18 years after it started, and she had to share. The first solo woman on the cover was Chris Evert in '76. The next was Mary Decker in '83. The third, Serena, in 2015. Bit of a gap. 

The first African-American? Rafer Johnson in 1958, followed by Bill Russell in 1968, followed by (about time) Muhammad Ali in '74. So in the first 20 years, 1954-73, only two African-Americans were honored.

Baseball has dominated. That surprised me:

Sport Total
Baseball 13.5
Basketball  10
Football 9
Golf 6
Olympics 6
Tennis 3.5
Boxing 3
Running 3
Cycling 2
Hockey  2
Athletes Who Care 1
Car racing 1
Horse racing 1
Soccer 1

Tiger Woods was tapped twice, in '96 and 2000, which seems a bit much, particularly considering who never got it: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton, Wilt Chamberlain, Martina Navratilova, Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer. The only male tennis star was Arthur Ashe in 1992, i.e., right before his death, speaking out against racism in sport. No Mark Spitz, either, which seems odd. No Carl Lewis, either. 1972 went to Wooden/King, '84 to Edwin Moses/Mary Lou Retton. I guess? 1980 went to the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, a good choice.

Trivia question: Who was the first black baseball player to get the title? Answer: Willie Stargell in 1979, and he had to share with Terry Bradshaw in a “Pittsburgh champions” cover. Stargell was indicative in one sense: He was the World Series MVP that year, and most of SI's baseball SOTY have been World Series MVPs:

Year Player Team Why?
2014 Madison Bumgarner San Francisco Giants World Series MVP
2009 Derek Jeter New York Yankees On World Series winning team
2004 Boston Red Sox Boston Red Sox World Series winners
2001 Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling Arizona Diamondbacks World Series MVPs
1998

Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa

Cardinals/Cubs Homerun champions
1995 Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore Orioles Consecutive game streak
1988 Orel Hershiser Los Angeles Dodgers World Series MVP
1979 Willie Stargell Pittsburgh Pirates World Series MVP
1975 Pete Rose Cincinnati Reds World Series MVP
1969 Tom Seaver New York Mets On World Series-winning team (MVP: Donn Clendenon)
1967 Carl Yastrzemski Boston Red Sox On World Series-losing team (WS MVP: Bob Gibson)
1965 Sandy Koufax Los Angeles Dodgers World Series MVP
1957 Stan Musial St. Louis Cardinals 2nd in NL MVP (to Hank Aaron) 
1955 Johnny Podres Brooklyn Dodgers World Series MVP

It's interesting checking out when it didn't go to the World Series MVP. In '57, Hank Aaron won the NL MVP, the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series, and in it he hit .393 with 3 homeruns and 7 RBIs but didn't win the MVP because Lew Burdette had one of the greatest Series ever: 3-0, 27 IP, 2 earned runs, 0.67 ERA. He was Christy Mathewson for a week. So why not Burdette? I guess because his season was good but not great: No Cy Young votes. So why not the guy who was the best position player on the champs and who was also NL MVP? Why choose the guy who finished second to him in the MVP voting and whose team didn't even make the Series? You know why. Business concerns, too, probably. You don't want the South rising in anger again, as it did when SI put Willie Mays on the cover with manager Leo Durocher and Durocher's wife.

It's tough to argue Yaz in '67 but Bob Gibson did go 3-0 in the Series that year. Seaver? Best player on the upstart Mets, but he went 1-1 in the Series when his team went 4-1. No Clemente in '71 or Reggie in '77. Lee Trevino and Steve Cauthen, respectively. As a result, the only African-American baseball player to be honored without a white guy next to him was Derek Jeter in 2009. Jeter had a good season that year, finishing third in MVP voting, but led the league in nothing. He also had a good postseason, and even hit .409 in the Series. But the better postseasons were had by A-Rod, who kept crushing homers, and Hideki Matsui, the World Series MVP, who batted .615 (you read that right) with 3 homers and 8 RBIs. But Jeter was the face of the franchise. He also sold magazines.  

The list is often reflective of its times, and most likely of SI's readership: the big three + golf. It ignored women and black athletes for too long, then fumbled trying to make it up to them (1970s/ early '80s), then seemed to lose interest at least where women were concerned. Until last year, that is, when, for the first time, it chose a black woman. And what happened? Readers thought it should've been a horse. Plus ca change. 

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Posted at 06:31 AM on Tue. May 10, 2016 in category Sports  

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