If there is a word to describe Sidney L. James, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's first managing editor, it is enthusiastic. He would respond to written story suggestions with GOLLY, GEE WHIZ or WOW scribbled to the side. Sid, who died last week at 97, never met a sports story he didn't like, partly because he came to the job as an innocent in the business.
In his younger years he had been a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and then an editor at LIFE, where in 1952 he had been instrumental in publishing Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. When Henry R. Luce, TIME'S founder, contemplated whether or not to launch a sports magazine, he asked Ernie Haverman, a trusted colleague, if it was a good idea. Haverman sent Luce an 11-page memo detailing why it wouldn't work. Sid said it would.
In those early days, beginning in August 1954, the magazine covered the full spectrum of sports—rodeo, canoeing, trapshooting and, yes, baseball, football and golf. Eddie Mathews may have been on SI's first cover, but he was quickly followed by a grouping of colorful golf bags, a woman knee-deep in the ocean surf and, in time, the Yale bulldog. It was Sid's belief that something in sports touched everyone.
During his six years as managing editor, James presided over the birth of the infamous SI jinx. In 1957 he ran a cover that said WHY OKLAHOMA IS UNBEATABLE. The next week the Sooners' 47-game winning streak came to an end. He also coaxed contributions from such literary all-stars as Hemingway and John Steinbeck. William Faulkner offered his impressions of the 1955 Kentucky Derby; Robert Frost observed the 1956 baseball All-Star Game; and John Marquand, one of the most popular novelists of the 1930s, wrote several short pieces about a fictional golf club called Happy Knoll.
Sid got caught up in the excitement leading up to the 1956 Olympics, SI's first. He ordered photos taken of every single member of the U.S. contingent, running them for several pages under the headline OLYMPIANS ARE YOUR NEIGHBORS. When a writer mentioned that he had accompanied two St. Louis pitchers, Lindy and Von McDaniel, to church and was forced to read a passage from the Bible to the congregation, Sid insisted the vignette be in the magazine.
A few years ago Sid, long retired and living in California, was asked if he would consider attending an SI reunion in New York City. He declined because of age but said that somewhere in the archives was a speech of Luce's saying that without Sid James, there never would have been a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. No reason to argue.