This time round it was The Franchise by Michael MacCambridge, a really well reported history of Sports Illustrated magazine. My father is a charter subscriber to SI--has been taking it almost continuously for 50 years. I've been reading it since about age nine and have never really stopped. Paging through The Franchise, I felt something like a fish reading about water for the first time. That's a bit hyperbolic, but I've been immersed in it too much to be very critical. I might've liked or disliked a certain writer, thought a certain period was better or worse than another, but never stopped to think about the magazine as an institution.
The biggest lesson I took away from MacCambridge was something I should've realized long ago but didn't: When SI began publishing in 1954, there was no consensus that sports was a coherent or pervasive, let alone important, theme in American culture. SI's parent publisher, Time-Life, was run by Ivy League types who, though they might enjoy tennis or golf, bore an attitude of apathy if not distaste toward dirtier, sweatier sports. There was no certainty that sports fans were an audience that advertisers would covet, nor any confidence that, say, readers in California were the least bit interested in Big Ten football. The first few years of the magazine's life, it spent fumbling painfully in search of an identity, running pieces about fly fishing and other stuff that today would be classified as Travel & Leisure.
One of the keys of SI's eventual success was an influx of writers from Texas, most notably Dan Jenkins. These guys knew golf not as a gentleman's verdant pastime but as a blood sport played on arid dog tracks. They knew high school and college football as the pulse of entire communities, states, regions. I may be guilty of seeing Red and Blue America everywhere I look nowadays, but this is an interesting manifestation of that dynamic, and a victory for down-home red-state wisdom.
The book is also worthy as a case study in business culture: the give and take between the editorial and corporate sides, the struggles for succession each time the Managing Editor post came open. MacCambridge did a lucid and thorough job; he seems to have interviewed just about every living writer, editor, photographer, and designer of note in the magazine's history (the book came out in 1997).
Thanks again to Phil of Here Be Monsters, who reminded me of this book's existence and gave it a good review over at Peoplesforum. MacCambridge has a new book out, a history of the National Football League, which I am sorely tempted to shell out for.
Brackets Update: In the Blogger Bracket at Yocohoops, I'm doing respectably well. I won't win it, but I'm in the top 10 or 15 percent of about 300 entries. It seems that for a guy who writes about sports, I know a lot about politics, and vice versa.