You'd think the Curse of the Bambino would be plenty for one town to labor under, but Boston has often been on the business end of the Jinx too. The misfortunes of Bird and Flutie are only a couple of examples—1977 was a particularly bad year for the Hub. After both the Celtics and the Bruins made the cover during the playoffs, then lost their ensuing series, a reader from New England begged us to spare the Red Sox and the Patriots. When we featured the Celtics in '87, with the billing CELTIC PRIDE, the Jinx, perhaps mindful that pride is one of the seven deadly sins, saw to it that Boston lost the Finals in six games to the Lakers.
In the aftermath of Oregon State's loss to Fresno State last season, we invited visitors to cnnsi.com to share with us instances of the Jinx in action. Of over 500 responses more than half came from fans of one Boston team or another, most from Red Sox partisans either bemoaning our 2000 cover of Pedro Martinez and the Bosox, on which we promised to explain WHY THE RED SOX WILL WIN THE WORLD SERIES, or begging, with that Garciaparra cover still fresh in their minds, for no more Nomars.
Explaining Away the Jinx
No one has been quicker to pooh-pooh the Jinx than the pooh-bahs of this magazine. During SI's salad days, editors protested that they had to send color plates to the engraver up to six weeks before publication, and that six weeks is plenty of time for a team or athlete to go into the crap-per. Case in point: the Cincinnati Reds, who were in contention for the National League crown in August 1957. HERO SHORTSTOP OF PENNANT-WINNING REDS, read the billing prepared to run over a picture of Roy McMillan. The Milwaukee Braves ran away from Cincinnati by season's end, leaving editors just enough time to sub in a new cover line, a sheepish THE BEST WAS NOT QUITE GOOD ENOUGH.
For years episodes like this led to a number of jinxes that took effect before the magazine hit the stands. The most chilling: Blue-blooded horseman Bill Woodward Jr. was to have been SI's 1955 Sportsman of the Year. He had posed for our cover with his wife, Ann, his prize thoroughbred, Nashua, and Eddie Arcaro, the jockey who had ridden Nashua to victories in the Preakness and the Belmont. The weekend the cover was to print, however, Ann accidentally shot and killed her husband. SI managing editor Sid James hastily shipped to the engraver a head shot of Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres. The picture was lame, and so was the choice of Podres as Sportsman of the Year. Although he had defeated the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series, he had lost more games than he'd won that year. But Podres had the inestimable advantage of not being dead.
Mark Mulvoy, who ran the magazine for eight years during the 1980s and '90s, likes to point out that no one has graced our cover more often than Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ah, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson or Jack Nicklaus. The Fab Five have appeared on the cover of SI a total of 166 times, over the course of 41 years, and the exposure hardly impeded their careers.
SI executive editor Peter Carry, who joined the magazine as an intern in 1963, has long contended that the Jinx is nothing more than what statisticians call "regression to the mean," and normal folks call "water seeking its own level." In other words when Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves, who hadn't lost since May '95, made the cover in August of that year, he was in the midst of a streak of 10 victories and 14 starts without a defeat, the most dazzling stretch of a fine career. Was his surrendering of five runs, eight hits and five walks in 6? innings in his next start the work of the Jinx, or simply evidence of his membership in the human race? The difficulty champs have in repeating, the so-called Cy Young Jinx, the "sophomore slump"—all are examples of regression to the mean. Fact: Among baseball players who hit .300 or better for a season, 80% hit for a lower average a year later. This isn't necessarily evidence that they've forgotten how to hit. It's more likely proof that they aren't, on balance, as good as a lofty average might have briefly suggested.
2,456 Covers, 913 Victims
Spreadsheet isn't only what farmers do so their crops will grow. It's what SI's Albert Chen and Tim Smith used to crunch mountains of data they amassed during six months of research. Breaking out covers by sport and athlete, team and school, amateur and professional, and by kind of Jinx, they analyzed the fate of virtually all of SI's 2,456 cover subjects up to this issue.
Two students at USC's Graduate School of Journalism, Tim Leone and Robbie Gluckson, had undertaken a similar study in 1984. After examining a random sample of 271 covers, Team Trojan concluded that cover subjects maintained or improved their level of performance almost 58% of the time. Chen and Smith did more than pick up where Leone and Gluckson left off, however. The passage of time gave them an additional 17 years to analyze, and thanks to the forensic assistance of LexisNexis, the online database, as well as yellowing newspapers in libraries and the fruits of many phone calls to longtime staffers and cover subjects, they hunted down more than the statistical details to which Leone and Gluckson limited themselves. For instance if you did nothing more than check the box scores, you'd know only that Miami Hurricanes quarterback Vinny Testaverde missed a game in '86 with an injury. What you might have missed is the fact that he was injured in a motor-scooter accident six days after appearing on our cover.