Origins of the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx

Did Time Magazine transfer an old thorn in their side to its kid sister?

I’ve long been aware of the SI cover jinx, the fun little legend where an athlete appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is bound to run into some sort of misfortune soon after their faces smile at us from the newsstand. What I wasn’t aware of, but apparently isn’t a secret, was that there was also a Time Magazine cover jinx. I found reference to it when I was listing for sale the August 15, 1955 issue of Time and my eyes more or less accidentally caught hold of the Publisher’s Letter page towards the front of that issue. James A. Linen mentions an article that Dick Young wrote for the New York Daily News and makes reference to the “TIME sports-cover jinx” which he also says “first started back in the 30’s.” More details on that issue will come further down.

Okay, my head is filled with tons of useless information, little factoids that over the years have encouraged just about everyone I know at one time or another to suggest I try out for Jeopardy (um, I never have), but this one didn’t ring a bell with me. I could recall talk of the SI cover jinx dating back to when I was a teenager in the 80’s, but I had honestly never heard of a Time cover jinx. Well, I searched it on the net and apparently it was no mystery. A found a few references, most of them forum posts usually preceded by a comment such as, “I may be a little older than the rest of you, but do you remember the Time cover jinx.” So the notion of a Time cover jinx was out there and apparently something still in the back of the minds of people a generation or two before me.

It still seemed a little strange that I had never heard about this before, so I decided to dig a little deeper. First I went to Sports Illustrated’s site, and lucky me, they has a SI Flashback page from January 21, 2002 with the complete cover story by Alexander Wolff, “The Cover That No One Would Pose For: Is the SI Jinx for Real?” The issue pictures a lone black cat on the cover, though I recall reading elsewhere when researching this that then Rams Quarterback Kurt Warner had been offered the opportunity to pose with the cat, but refused (sorry, I can’t find the reference for that, but it’s not too important).

Wolff’s article names several incidents of the SI Cover Jinx that occurred through the years and goes further with an in depth survey of every cover in SI’s history from its debut issue in 1954 through 2002 which found the following:

“Of the 2,456 covers SI had run, 913 featured a person who, or team that, suffered some verifiable misfortune that conformed to our definition — a Jinx rate of 37.2%. The majority of those instances (52.7%) were bad losses or lousy performances by a team, followed by declines in individual performance (44.6%), bad loss or lousy performance by an individual (25.2%), postseason failure (13.4%), injury or death (11.8%) and blunder or bad play (4.6%).”

Okay, obviously this article is largely tongue in cheek, but at the same time Wolff does try to cover the history of the Jinx, which he claims began with the first issue of SI, August 16, 1954, when cover subject Eddie Mathews saw his Milwaukee Braves have a nine-game winning streak snapped after his cover appearance, and then a week later Mathews himself was hit by a pitch on his hand, an injury which caused him to miss seven games. “Thus began the legend of the SI Jinx,” so says Wolff.

He does mention a history of the Jinx in the past, based upon what he cleverly refers to as the “Luce Screw Theory,” so named because of Henry R. Luce’s ownership of both Sports Illustrated and Time Magazines. Wolff refers to a 1949 appearance by Ben Hogan on the cover of Time that preceded a nasty accident involving the famous golfer that caused several broken bones and internal injuries. Two years later the undefeated Sugar Ray Robinson was on the cover of Time before suffering his first loss to Randy Turpin. Wolff writes, “Those two incidents led columnist Walter Winchell to posit the existence of a Time cover jinx.”

But my 1955 issue mentioned this Time cover jinx dating back to the thirties. What gives? Something else I found a little odd, and this may be nothing more but changing times, was that the entire SI article poked fun at the cover jinx, while at the same time reveling in it to some degree. I definitely came away with the impression that Sports Illustrated was proud to have this dastardly jinx associated with its name. While the little piece I had read in the 1955 issue of Time, and ironically most of this article was spent celebrating the first anniversary of Sports Illustrated, spent its time trying to debunk the myth of the jinx. It was also weird and a little inconsistent that the SI curse claimed to come along with Volume 1, Number 1, that whole Eddie Mathews incident, but a year into SI’s history Time, in an article relating to the jinx, did not associate it with Sports Illustrated once. Again, what gives?

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You know, none of this is any big deal, but at the same time I was made curious by the inconsistency. So I reached into my pocket and paid $2.50 to access Time‘s archive, a wonderful resource which reproduces all of the text that ever published in Time Magazine. A little aside, they try and get you on a cheap 6-issue $1.99 introductory subscription to Time by granting you full access to the archives, but it’s one of those deals where the subscription renews itself if you forget to cancel, and renews at a higher rate. I didn’t want the aggravation, but I had learned during one previous night of research that the $2.50 fee which is supposed to cover your reading one full article from the archives actually grants you full access to the archives during that particular visit. It could be a glitch, but it seemed fair enough to me so I paid my $2.50 and went to work researching “cover jinx”.

January 5, 1942 — In the “Letters” section a reader writes noting that the jinx has claimed Admiral Kimmel and Fedor von Bock. Time replies that “TIME’s ‘cover jinx’ has sometimes appeared to work on sports figures but not on others.”

June 22, 1942 — Again, in the “Letters” section a reader asks if it is carrying the cover jinx too far to mention that the late Reinhard Heydrich appeared on a recent cover of Time. The short editorial reply: “Just far enough.”

November 26, 1945 — The jinx is covered in the entire “A Letter From The Publisher” column where despite ultimately concluding that the circumstances “may, or may not, constitute a ‘jinx’” does mention the misfortune of cover subjects Johnny Goodman (6/6/38), Colonel Edward Riley Bradley (5/7/34), Cavalcade (8/20/34), Primo Carnera (10/5/31), Tom Harmon (11/6/39) and Joe DiMaggio (7/13/36). The article concludes mentioning those sports figures featured on the cover who were not hurt by the so-called jinx: Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Helen Wills, Red Grange, Bobby Jones, Mickey Cochrane, Mike Vanderbilt, Juan Belmonte. The entire editorial was due to Army coach Red Blaik worrying about the cover curse when his backfield combo of Doc Blanchard and Junior Davis were featured on the cover … Army went on to beat Notre Dame 48-0.

July 23, 1951 — The jinx is defended again in “A Letter From the Publisher” in this issue after Sugar Ray Robinson’s defeat, which is mentioned above. Examples are again given for those who fell prey to the jinx: Joe DiMaggio (7/13/36), who by the way went 0 for 5 and booted two balls in that year’s All-Star Game, Tom Harmon (11/6/39), Elizabeth Arden Graham (5/6/46), Leo Durocher (4/14/47), and Ben Hogan, also mentioned above (1/10/49). Time then defends itself by noting that “Among the 17 sports covers since World War II, 12 seem to have brought at least as much good luck as bad.” Mentioned specifically are Glen Davis and Doc Blanchard (11/12/45), Pauline Betz (9/2/46), Frank Leahy (10/14/46), Bob Chappuis (11/3/47), and Ben Jones (5/30/49).

May 12, 1952 — Back to the letters section this issue when a reader notes that Eddie Stanky was fined $50 for an argument with an umpire before a Time cover story on Stanky hit the streets. Time points out the ump was fined more than $100.

August 15, 1955 — This was the issue that originally raised my curiosity. The article that James R. Linen referred to in the New York Daily News by Dick Young mentions Time cover-subject Roy Campanella hitting a game-winning home run that “hammered the hex into the leftfield bleachers,” in Young’s words. Linen makes note of such successful Time cover subjects such as Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ben Hogan, and Bob Mathias before concluding “but never has the myth been so effectively and quickly exploded as by Campy’s game-winning homer.”

October 28, 1966 — Again “A Letter From The Publisher” seeks to “debunk the TIME cover “jinx” after Notre Dame Quarter back Terry Hanratty and End Jim Seymour appeared on their cover prior to a 38-0 trouncing of undefeated Oklahoma. The article again goes on to mention other sports stars on Time’s covers who performed great after their appearance: Jack Nicklaus (6/29/62), the Cleveland Browns who beat Dallas the week Jim Brown graced Time’s cover (11/26/65), Vince Lombardi (12/21/62), Rafer Johnson (8/29/60), and others.

October 24, 1969 — Finally, the last mention of the cover jinx that I found in Time‘s archives came again in “A Letter From The Publisher” where it is notes that several readers were upset to find the New York Mets on the cover of the September 5 issue. Once again victims of the past are mentioned beginning with DiMaggio and then Leo Durocher, Ben Hogan, Navy in 1963 before being defeated by S.M.U. as Time’s Roger Staubach cover went to press. Time defends its sports cover choices this time around by mentioning the more successful subjects Bob Mathias, Althea Gibson, Bobby Hull, and Denny McLain.

The most interesting thing to me was that neither the 1966 nor the 1969 issues, which both go into detail regarding the Time cover jinx, mention anything about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Why not? Being owned by the same company there would have been no damage done, in fact, I expected there to be a reference. How come the 2002 Sports Illustrated article can only trace the curse back to 1949, when I went as far back as 1936 in just a few minutes of research? The best they could do was mention that Walter Winchell “posited” the existence of a Time cover jinx after the Sugar Ray Robinson loss in 1951? The writers and his research team missed the earlier incidents despite taking the time to research the fates of 2,456 cover subjects of SI through the years?

Well, here are my own conclusions and I admit my own research is probably somewhat open to questioning since I did not have access to SI files to the extent that I did those of Time, plus this was one night’s work following what I found to be an interesting piece of information and not to be confused with any sort of in-depth journalistic foray:

I’m left thinking that the SI cover jinx is revisionist history on par with the famed Boston Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino,” which if I’m recalling correctly was actually supposed to have been invented sometime after the Sox’ 1986 World Series loss to the New York Mets. I see SI eating up this whole cover jinx angle, while Time throughout the years feels that it’s necessary to defend themselves against the jinx with numerous examples of cover subjects who went on to great success. Finally, and this is the same conclusion I came to in my blog posting, again just one man’s opinion but it’s what’s in my head right now: did the more serious Time Magazine simply transfer this cover jinx that they obviously saw as an embarrassment to younger sister-publication Sports Illustrated and its more laid-back readership who would be more likely find the jinx humorous?

I may be totally off-base, but it’s fun to think about:

  • SI claims the jinx since 1954
  • SI mentions the jinx at Time from 1949-51
  • Time refers to the jinx as early as 1942 and makes reference to it regarding a 1936 incident
  • Time makes no mention of a SI jinx as late as 1969
  • Time seems embarrassed by the jinx
  • SI seems to find the jinx good fun

At any rate, I hope it was interesting reading!

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