When photographer Bill Ballenberg was assigned to shoot the picture act (page 46) that accompanies the series of articles in this issue on Appleton, Wis., his instructions were short and sweet. "We're doing an essay on sports in a town in Middle America," he was told. "See you later."
Ballenberg, 35, was thrilled. "That's such a wonderful thing for a photographer—an assignment that's so totally open-ended," he says. "The only problem I had was wasting a lot of time photographing silos. That's not hard to do when you're an Easterner [he lives in Virginia Beach, Va.] like me."
The idea of focusing on the sporting life of a small city in Middle America was managing editor Mark Mulvoy's. "It dawned on me that people in such places do a lot of different things in the summertime that we never get a chance to write about," says Mulvoy. "It would be sport in its purest form."
Senior editor Julia Lamb was assigned to find a suitable city. Mulvoy mandated a number of requirements—a minor league team, a classic hometown hero, a sports-minded citizenry. Appleton was perfect. It had the Foxes (page 38), Rocky Bleier (page 62) and thousands of active amateur athletes, young and old. It also had SI staff writer Jill Lieber as a native daughter. Well, Lieber actually hails from Neenah, a town near Appleton. "Don't call Neenah a suburb of Appleton," warns Lieber, whose recollection of growing up in what is known as the Fox Cities can be found on page 56.
Ballenberg, like everyone else involved in the project, remarks on the friendliness and openness of Appletonians. But Middle America also has a healthy measure of skepticism, as he discovered one day when he was shooting at a lake in Appleton.
"This one little boy just wouldn't believe we were from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," says Ballenberg. "Finally he said, 'Show me your membership card.' " Ballenberg didn't have one, but we trust his photos will suffice.
Making his debut in our pages at the age of 79—and shooting a different slice of Americana, the opening of the meeting at Saratoga (page 2)—is Carl Mydans. One of LIFE'S earliest staff photographers and for five decades a celebrated photojournalism Mydans says: "One of my first assignments for LIFE involved horses. Now my very first assignment for SI does, too."