A history of The Sporting News the oldest sports publication in the U.S.

The Sporting News is an interesting magazine to cover because it’s fascinating history mingles with the history of baseball itself.

I have to be honest, as I write this my experience in selling vintage issues of The Sporting News is limited to a handful of 1940’s and 50’s editions and several 1970’s issues. Older issues are difficult to buy as they are expensive on a retail basis and the bidding on them is extremely competitive in auction format. Printed on newsprint from its earliest days until recent years, the survival rate of early issues cannot be healthy. In fact a deep internet search going beyond eBay to Froogle and touching upon collectible book sites only turned up a single unbound issue dating prior to World War II. The issue was dated in the 1910’s and had a price of about $80. I can’t argue with that, availability leads me to believe it may be a bargain.

This is a case where age does create demand and high value, a situation that while expected by the novice is actually somewhat unusual when dealing with vintage collectibles. Another interesting aspect of The Sporting News as a collectible is that as it has evolved decade by decade from a standard newspaper format to a slick photo filled magazine, making all stops in between the two extremes, is that chances are the better it looks the less it’s worth. The more it offers its current readers the less it’s worth to collectors.

This is no knock on The Sporting News, in fact it’s high compliment. Its earliest issues did not even have any images on the covers. Eventually small photos and drawings, both caricature and comic, worked their way onto the covers. Next it was full-page photos on the cover, first black and white, then color. From a single color photos on the cover the next step was to several smaller pictures giving readers a better idea of what was inside. Finally the evolution from newsprint to slick magazine format with crisp color images on the cover. Today’s magazine is filled with hot topics and well-written articles for fans of all sport. But for the hardcore collector it’s the days of “The Bible of Baseball” that we’re all after, issues where any week of the year would have baseball and nothing but baseball on the cover and inside. Well, there was a little more variation in the earliest days of The Sporting News, back in the 19th century, but I suppose we should head back to that time to see what was inside.

The first issue of The Sporting News dated March 17, 1886The first issue of The Sporting News measured 17 by 22 inches, sold for 5 cents or if you wanted to bet on it’s survival then $2.50 per year, and was published March 17, 1886, by 31-year-old Al Spink, a St. Louis Browns executive who was instrumental in the purchase of Sportsman’s Park with the colorful Chris Von der Ahe. The Sporting News would be published by the Spink family for just over 90 years. They were a colorful bunch, that’s for sure.

I previously referred to The Sporting News as “The Bible of Baseball” and while it would earn this moniker in time at its beginning it reflected Al Spink’s interests and covered cycling, shooting, billiards and even theater. Boxing coverage would also be a big part of the 19th century Sporting News, but baseball was The Sporting News bread and butter from the start.

As soon as September 1886 The Sporting News would include sketches of the St. Louis Browns players on its cover with the banner headline “St. Louis Browns — Champions of the World”. For the most part these earliest editions of The Sporting News appeared at first glance the same as any newspaper–the cover was filled by text.

It should be noted that as successful as The Sporting News was, it was not the first sporting paper, and it did have formidable competition from the start in The Sporting Life, founded by Francis Richter in 1883. While The Sporting Life originally noted the arrival of The Sporting News with approval very soon they were accusing Spink’s paper of copying The Sporting Life’s style. Spink replied that indeed, their advertising columns were very similar, except that The Sporting News had so many more ads!

The Sporting News was pretty much a one-man operation involving Al Spink at first, with Al handling tasks as varied as balancing the books, soliciting advertising and overseeing the editorial content, but this soon proved too much for one man so Al brought in his little brother Charles Spink in 1887 at a $50 per week salary.

Even though his baseball knowledge was initially limited, Charles jumped at the opportunity and quickly helped boost circulation with a sample-copy campaign. Circulation stood at about 40,000 in October 1887 and had risen to 56,500 as soon as February 1888. Advertising requests were so heavy that The Sporting News would expand five times in 1888, growing from 8 to 12 pages.

This was followed by a brief drop in circulation when in 1890 The Sporting News broke the story about the player’s revolt and backed the new Player’s League. They had made the wrong choice and the public let them know it. Charles Spink was taking over the magazine little by little all throughout the 90’s as Al persued other interests. Al Spink would depart for good in 1899 with A.J. “Joe” Flanner taking over as editor and Charles Spink holding the title of publisher. With Al out the door The Sporting News adjusted its coverage and focused entirely upon baseball.

The Sporting News would find itself involved in baseball politics again at the turn of the century, backing the emergence of the new American League on its pages, a far better choice than the earlier Player’s League debacle. Joe Flanner would actually draft the National Agreement governing all of the Organized Baseball clubs, essentially the peace pact between the American and National Leagues.

When Flanner left Charles Spink hired on Joseph Cummings as editor, Cummings was followed very briefly by Ring Lardner. Lardner wrote a series of articles titled “Pullman Pastimes” that are referred to as a forerunner to his classic “You Know Me, Al” articles later appearing in the Saturday Evening Post. Lardner must have hated his time at the Sporting News, because the story is that he went out for lunch one day and never returned. Earl Obenshain was the last editor to be hired by Charles Spink. Obenshain would stick around into the late 1920’s.

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John George Taylor Spink, Charles’ son would succeed his father as publisher of The Sporting News upon Charles’ death on April 21, 1914. Before becoming publisher of The Sporting News, Taylor Spink had been responsible for hiring correspondents to the magazine in each of the cities represented by Organized Baseball. This masterstroke led to a new freshness and familiarity in baseball reportage. Taylor Spink was just 23 years old when he became publisher, a post he would remain in until his death in 1962.

Taylor Spink was best remembered by those who worked for him for the phone and telegraph bills he ran up as he worked seven days and six nights per week in elevating The Sporting News to “the Bible of Baseball.” He contacted correspondents at all hours of the day and night in his commitment to putting out the best baseball paper possible. TIME Magazine reported his monthly phone and telegraph bills as $1,400 in 1943. According to the TIME article “He ran complete box scores from 18 leagues, coverage of 21 others, weekly resumes and statistics on every team down through class D. He developed a string of 250 correspondents … and kept them jumping with 1,000-word telegrams and phone calls at 4 a.m.”

Over the years Spink feuded with baseball’s first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was initially backed by The Sporting News in response to the 1919 Black Sox scandal but by 1922 the paper had soured on him and even published an editorial titled “The Issue With Landis.”

The Sporting News September 21 1949 issueIt’s interesting to note the drop in circulation at The Sporting News in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal. The magazine was actually going strong at the end of the first World War mainly due to Taylor Spink’s idea of distributing copies overseas through the American League to American forces in Europe. A.L. President Ban Johnson put the proposal before American League owners and it was quickly accepted. This resulted in The Sporting News earning many new readers when the war was over. When Taylor Spink took over as publisher in 1914 circulation was at 75,000 — according to TIME Magazine it had dropped to 5,000 when the majority of its subscribers went to war, then the A.L. bought 150,000 subscriptions for the troops overseas — by the time the Black Sox scandal had marred the game circulation had fallen again to just over 50,000. Then, thankfully for both The Sporting News and baseball itself, Babe Ruth began hitting home runs at unprecedented rates and by 1924 circulation had jumped back to over 90,000!

After editor Obenshain left The Sporting News played out a brief game of editorial musical chairs which even included a brief return by Obenshain before Edgar J. Brands was hired as editor in 1931. He would remain in the post until his retirement in 1954, at which time Taylor Spink became editor in addition to publisher. Carl Felker joined The Sporting News in 1926 and successfully took over copy editing and headline writing duties until the late 1950’s.

The Sporting News February 25 1978 issueAlong the way “The Bible of Baseball” would collaborate with the sponsor of the first All-Star Game, the Chicago Tribune, to poll the fans for the starting line-ups. They took a stand against night baseball but were quick to reverse themselves when they saw how successful games under light were with the fans. During a brief period of peace with Commissioner Landis they were awarded the right to publish Baseball’s Official Guide after Spalding discontinued publication of their standard guide in 1941. During World War II Taylor Spink would repeat his World War I distribution efforts which would further solidify The Sporting News’ circulation base after the war.

It was in these overseas editions that Taylor Spink experimented with articles about sports other than baseball. This proved popular enough to become part of regular editions of The Sporting News when the war was over. Football, basketball and hockey did take a back seat to baseball, but the other sports gave The Sporting News something to cover and helped sustain circulation during baseball’s off-months.

In 1962, Taylor Spink’s son, Charles C. Spink II, referred to as Johnson Spink in tribute to Ban Johnson, was elected president-treasurer of the family company, while Taylor was named Chairman of the Board. Taylor Spink would die December 7, 1962 the same year that the National Baseball Hall of Fame would both name it’s journalism award in his honor and make him the awards first recipient.

Johnson Spink would modernize The Sporting News by printing black & white photos on the cover. Prior to this The Sporting News covers were most often graced by classic cartoons by nationally known cartoonists such as Willard Mullin, Lou Darvas, Bill Gallo, Karl Hubenthal, and Amadee Wohlschlaeger. This harkens back to what I had mentioned earlier for collectors–photo covers depicting concrete subjects are usually better than cartoons depicting generic figures, but in the case of The Sporting News I’d much rather stock 1950’s issues with Mullin’s Brooklyn Bum than have a stack of later issues with attractive photographic covers.

Besides the change in cover format, Johnson Spink also started using punchy one-line headlines, he had column rules eliminated, and in 1967 when The Sporting News switched printers and moved to an offset press those cover photographs became color photos. Eventually all text except for the banner was eliminated from the cover and a photo took up the entire page. Speaking of covers this is also around the time where baseball subjects were no longer guaranteed the cover spot, The Sporting News was becoming an all-sports weekly and reflected it by including other sports stars on the cover.

A big step in making the magazine even more relevant for subscribers was the change in press day from Friday to Monday — this move put issues in the readers’ hands before the weekend when many of the big sporting events were to take place.

As involved as Johnson Spink was in modernizing The Sporting News, in 1976 he decided he wanted to sell. He set a price, the Times Mirror Company met it, and on January 11, 1977 The Sporting News passed out of the Spink family’s hands in exchange for $18 million. Under terms of the deal Johnson Spink remained as editor and publisher for five years. When Johnson Spink took control circulation was over 178,000, when he left in January 1982 it was up to about 470,000.

The Sporting News Centennial EditionMy own favorite covers, the full page color photos, would be replaced by multiple smaller photos on the cover in the 1980’s. This move helped boost newsstand sales by showing more of what was inside the magazine, though ironically it hurts collector value because one subject on the cover is more desirable than three or four different faces. Finally, in 1997, The Sporting News debuted a new full-color glossy format and for the first time looked more like a magazine than a newspaper. The slick format will likely hold collector interest for future generations, but for now these issues are simply just too new to bear any collectible market in most cases.

I’d love to get my hands on some of the earlier issues of The Sporting News, both because I could give you a better idea of value as well as make some good money for myself, but for now I can say that my experience with the classic magazine reveals a varied range of prices. The 1940’s and 50’s issues I’ve handled realized a range between $10 and $20 apiece in auction format, depending on condition and importance of the headlines. All of those I handled had generic cartoons on the covers, which are interesting and desirable but do not help bolster value of one particular issue over another. I probably would have started them a little higher in the $20-$25 range if I were listing them as store inventory. My guess is that they would eventually move at those prices.

I’ve handled several issues from the later 1970’s, which as I’ve mentioned have beautiful full color photographs on the cover, made all the more attractive by the larger format of The Sporting News. Common issues from this period sell for $4-$6 with minor stars going for $5-$8 and some issues with bigger stars (Pete Maravich, Joe Montana, Larry Bird) for as much as $10-$20 depending on the cover subject.

It’s my own opinion that there is a lot of potential in collecting The Sporting News, especially if you can lay hands on high grade editions. Being an oversized publication printed on newsprint, it’s often folded and older issues can be brittle to handle, especially around any creases. But issues from the 1950’s-70’s seem undervalued and for the pure collector they offer both an interesting and in most cases more affordable alternative to the more popularly collected Sports Illustrated. It’s not likely that you find a bargain buy on stack of issues of The Sporting News from say, 1908, but if you’re offered a pile of papers from the 1940’s or 50’s and the price sounds fair, I’d suggest you pay for them before the seller changes their mind.


  • “History of the Sporting News.” The Sporting News: The Vault. 25 Jan 2006. < http://www.sportingnews.com/archives/history/ >
  • “Mr. Baseball.” TIME Magazine. 8 Nov 1943. TIME Magazine Article Archive. 27 Jan 2006. < http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,796283,00.html >
  • Reidenbaugh, Lowell. “The First Century.” The Sporting News Centennial Issue. 201.9. 28 Feb 1986: 16-53.

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