A news magazine, which this periodical considers itself to be, is said to provide the rough draft of history. What follows is a final draft of a history that to a cohort of athletes and teams since 1954 has been pretty rough. Brace yourself: You're about to read a virtually exhaustive, intermittently scientific, highly anecdotal study that may well discourage anyone from ever again sitting for a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover (which is our problem, not yours).
The subject, of course, is the so-called SI Cover Jinx—"so-called" because our task here is to ascertain, as best we can, whether the Jinx exists. If it does, it's insidious. The Jinx, believers say, strikes man. ( Wilbur Wood of the Chicago White Sox, who was 13-3 when he made a 1973 cover appearance, lost eight of his next nine decisions.) It strikes woman. (Swimmer Carin Cone, unbeaten in the 100-meter backstroke for four years leading up to the '60 Olympic trials, failed to qualify for the Games after her cover.) It strikes man and woman (golfer Doug Sanders and his wife, Joan, shared a cover in January '62 and were divorced less than a year later); it strikes man and beast (two months after Steve Cauthen's cover in '77, the leg of his mount, Baystreak, was broken in a three-horse pileup, and Cauthen suffered multiple fractures and required 25 stitches); it strikes man and machine (the roll of auto racers killed shortly after appearances includes Pat O'Connor and Ricardo Rodriguez).
It afflicts athletes who have scarcely begun their careers: The Royals' Clint Hurdle, THIS YEAR'S PHENOM (1978), wasn't, and Tony Mandarich of the Packers, THE BEST OFFENSIVE LINE PROSPECT EVER ('89), was suspect from his first snap until he retired; high school pitching phenom Jon Peters, '89's SUPERKID, hurt his right arm in college and wound up as student manager at Texas A&M. It waylays those who have finished their careers: Ted Williams tripped over his dog and broke his hip within a few weeks of an appearance in '96. It even touches those who seem to be composting contentedly in the grave: Several weeks after Babe Ruth graced the cover in '99, old film footage surfaced giving credence to longstanding doubts that the Bambino really called his legendary called shot. Bill Parcells is a longtime Jinx believer. After his New England Patriots won the '96 AFC title game, Parcells phoned his daughter Jill, who works in our events-marketing department, to bark two words: "No cover."
The past year was a good one for the Jinx—or a bad one, if you happen to be Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox. Days after Garciaparra appeared on the cover last spring, shirtless and mocking the fates, it was announced mat he had split a tendon in his right wrist. Oregon State, our preseason No. 1 on last fall's college football preview and featured on the cover in the person of running back Ken Simonton, lost 44-24 to Fresno State in its opener and finished 5-6. The run of Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch for the Heisman Trophy, founded less on his statistics than on his having piloted the Cornhuskers to an 11-0, top-of-the-polls season, hit a speed bump the day after Thanksgiving, when Colorado obliterated them 62-36. The wipeout occurred just as subscribers were receiving the issue bearing his portrait. This season's billing of SKINS' GAME: HOW TO GO 0-5, THEN 5-0 all but assured that the Washington Redskins would lose to the Dallas Cowboys that week and then fail to make the playoffs—and led to a campaign by Pittsburgh TV and radio stations, after the Steelers landed on the cover the following week, to get listeners to boycott the issue and cancel their subscriptions.
A fine year for the Jinx, but nothing remarkable considering what's gone on for nearly five decades. Please, then, join us as we try to better understand the sphinx that is the Jinx.
The Origins of the Jinx
When Eddie Mathews appeared on the cover of the first issue of SI, dated Aug. 16, 1954, he and the Milwaukee Braves were on a nine-game winning streak. They lost their next game, on Aug. 17, and a week later a pitch struck Mathews on the hand, causing an injury that forced him to miss seven games. Thus began the legend of the SI Jinx.
In fact if we ascribe to something that might be called the Luce Screw Theory, the spore of the Jinx may have blown over from TIME, from which we are descended and with which we've shared an office building for virtually all our life. In its Jan. 10, 1949, issue, TIME featured Ben Hogan on its cover. On a foggy morning several weeks later, as the golfer drove back to his Fort Worth home from a tournament in Phoenix, a transcontinental bus slammed into the driver's side of his car. Hogan broke an ankle, his pelvis and several ribs, suffered massive internal injuries and left doctors wondering if he'd ever walk again. Barely two years after that episode, upon stepping into the ring three weeks after TIME had featured him on its cover, Sugar Ray Robinson suffered his first loss in 39 fights, to Randy Turpin. Those two incidents led columnist Walter Winchell to posit the existence of a TIME cover jinx.
However, it took SI—"Jockstrap," as the magazine was known to condescending Time Inc. executives during its incubation—to do up front-page misfortune properly. Specifically four cursed covers over a six-year span. In 1955, the week that an issue featuring her was on the stands, skier Jill Kinmont struck a tree during a practice run and was paralyzed from the neck down. WHY OKLAHOMA IS UNBEATABLE wasn't an insupportable billing, given that the Sooners in November '57 had won 47 straight games, but their 7-0 loss to Notre Dame the following Saturday was ill-timed. In '58 our Indy 500 preview featured O'Connor, who was killed in a 15-car pileup during the first lap. Skater Laurence Owen appeared on the cover in '61, billed as AMERICA'S MOST EXCITING GIRL SKATER; two days after the cover date Owen and the rest of the U.S. skating team perished in a plane crash.
Small wonder that after Boston Bruins goalie Don Head appeared on the cover in January 1962, teammates told him, "You're doomed." Head got off easy in comparison with some of his fellow cover boys, but later mat month the Bruins sent him down to the minors. He never played in the NHL again.