Sporting News Forever Linked To Baseball's Past
Editor's Note: The Sporting News announced last fall that it was merging its regular magazine and its preview magazines and moving to a monthly publication schedule focused on previewing different sports, effectively marking the end of the publication many baseball fans grew up with (it had already moved to a bi-weekly schedule in 2008). We wanted to signpost this event and look back on the time when The Sporting News was the unrivaled voice of the game.
Today's baseball fans live in the land of milk and honey. Cable, satellite and internet connections put multiple games a night at your fingertips. Social media provides updates as they happen, while a particular outlet—Baseball America comes to mind—can help foretell the future by reporting on and pondering the present.
Yet the Stone Age does not exist in the distant past. When ESPN's "SportsCenter" debuted in September 1979, fans who did not live in a major league market caught most of their televised action on network games of the week. Radio was a popular way of keeping up with the sport, along with local newspapers.
But for the hardcore fan as well as those who worked in the game, a subscription to The Sporting News was a must. Every week, "the bible of baseball" kept fans abreast of every important detail. Reports on all major league teams, box scores of every game, and the most in-depth statistics and analysis for both the majors and minors resided on the pages of newsprint and provided starved fans with unparalleled information.
"During The Sporting News' years as 'the bible of baseball,' I think the newspaper was a must-read for everyone in the baseball business," said Steve Gietschier, who was the publication's archivist from 1985-2008. "It was the primary source for baseball news, especially for folks in the minors."
In many ways, Organized Baseball and The Sporting News grew up together, as the publication developed the blueprint for media coverage on a national scale. Albert Henry Spink was an entrepreneur in St. Louis who was instrumental in organizing the city's first professional baseball club, the Browns, in 1875. He also helped established the American Association and purchased Sportsman's Park with Chris Von der Ahe, a local saloonkeeper and owner of the team. In the midst of the Browns winning championships, from 1885-88,The 31-year-old delved into the publishing business with The Sporting News, debuting on St. Patrick's Day 1886.
The debut edition was a broadsheet of eight pages, printed on 17"x 22" newsprint, and cost five cents. While baseball received the most attention, Spink also provided coverage of cycling, rowing, shooting, billiards, boxing and even the theater. To say the contents, including the numerous advertisements, were eclectic would be putting it mildly. That's the way Spink envisioned his publication, as evidenced by his statement in the first issue: "It is the custom when a new journal of any class is thrust upon an all-confiding and unsuspecting public to launch out into a lengthy editorial as to what the newcomer will do and as to the aims and objects. Now for various reasons The Sporting News intends to ignore this custom and let its readers guess out what its aims and objects are."
Baseball became The Sporting News' calling card because the public's desire for information on the game proved insatiable. Two months after debuting, The Sporting News claimed to have the "largest circulation of any sporting paper published west of Philadelphia"—a jab at its primary competition, Sporting Life—and it reached a circulation of 56,500 in February 1888.
Those numbers could be attributed in part to the approach Spink used. He was not afraid to voice his opinion, even when it changed due to further investigation or reaction from its readers. Spink was not averse to ridiculing and even attacking both friends and foe, including his former partner, Von der Ahe. The Sporting News also and went beyond reporting by incorporating design elements, beginning with line sketches of Browns players in the Oct. 30, 1886, issue after St. Louis defeated the Chicago White Sox in a winner-take-all World's Series.
"Its cultural and social role was far more impactful on the game than any infrastructure contributions," said John Thorn, official historian for Major League Baseball. "The Spinks were respected if not liked. They were a feisty bunch and not reluctant to make enemies in the furtherance of their business goals."
The newspaper's growth combined with his desire to engage in other ventures led Spink to hire his younger brother, Charles Spink, in 1887. for $50 a week. Shortly thereafter, Albert Spink made a near-fatal decision. Close relationships with several players allowed The Sporting News to scoop the competition on June 22, 1889, with news of the union's formation of the Players League. Spink supported the Brotherhood's efforts, which led A.G. Spalding & Brothers to move its advertising to the Sporting Life and The Sporting Times, a new publication funded by the National League.
Albert Spink's role diminished shortly thereafter. He produced a play, "The Derby Winner," which received critical acclaim locally but bombed when he took a leave of absence from the publishing world and took the production on the road. Spink had to sell his shares of stock in The Sporting News in an attempt to pay the bills and wound up returning to the newspaper while working for his brother. The and The brothers' relationship deteriorated during the 1890s, leading to Albert's departure in 1900.
The Sporting News' empire grew with Charles Spink as publisher and Joe Flanner, an unassuming but enthusiastic editor who had practiced law in the Dakotas and in 1903 helped draft the National Agreement between the National and American leagues. In October 1899, Spink published The Sporting Goods Dealer, a trade publication, and added over the next decade Toys and Novelties and The Toy Buyer's Guide. They decided to focus all of The Sporting News' efforts on baseball, and by 1906 it called itself the "Weekly Journal Devoted to the Advancement of the Interests of Organized Baseball."
Focusing On The National Pastime
The new millennium brought with it more advances. In October 1902 The Sporting News ran its first half-tone photograph, a full-page shot of the NL champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The publication hired 11 major league correspondents—one per city—and allowed them to write about any topic related to baseball as long as they mentioned their hometown club in the story. B box scores became commonplace, as did the newspaper's willingness to criticize, with owner John Brush and manager John McGraw of the New York Giants the most common targets.
When Charles Spink died in 1914 (with American League president Ban Johnson and Chicago owner Charles Comiskey among those serving as pallbearers), The Sporting News moved into the hands of his son, 26-year-old J.G. Taylor Spink. "The alphabetical Mr. Spink" as Red Smith called him, changed the editorial voice after calling its writing "run-of-the-mill and stodgy," and built an unmatched network of reporters.
Spink also proved to be a good businessman. On July 4, 1918, The Sporting News had its first price increase, going from five cents to seven cents, and just weeks later to 10 cents. He also convinced the American League to purchase 150,000 copies of the newspaper every week at a discount and send them overseas to U.S. soldiers, boosting circulation and crushing competitors.
"I can think of no instance in which The Sporting News helped to shape baseball that was greater than the decision to send it free to those in the armed services, in World Wars I and II," Thorn said. "In the former conflict, Spink succeeded in shutting down its longtime (and in many ways superior) rival, Sporting Life. In the latter, it may well have helped to fuel the postwar baseball boom."
Daring and fearless, Spink always wanted the news and wanted it first. His energy was boundless, and he would call writers, executives or anyone else associated with the game at any time of the day or night. He feuded often with the first commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in part because Spink always sided with Johnson.
"Taylor Spink was a mover and a shaker," Gietschier said. "He did not just react to news; he helped to create news. He was an insider. He helped to formulate baseball policy. It's no accident that during both world wars, baseball paid for The Sporting News to be sent to troops overseas. That's just one small example."
"Sometimes a head light and sometimes a tail light," according to Thorn, The Sporting News immersed itself in every baseball matter under Spink, who remained in charge until his death in 1962. He at first defended the White Sox following the 1919 World Series, then changed course when evidence came out against them. The Sporting News supported Sunday baseball but initially was leery of games played at night. It helped promote the first All-Star Game in 1933, even offering an all-expense paid trip to the contest and World Fair in Chicago to the reader who came closest to selecting the consensus all-star teams and writing a letter that offered the most convincing reasons for their choices. The newspaper but did not see significant potential in Jackie Robinson. In the Nov. 1, 1945, issue, the magazine opined, "Robinson is reported to possess baseball abilities which, were he white, would make him eligible for a trial with, let us say, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Class B farm at Newport News if he were six years younger."
The newspaper joined other print publications in demonizing the advent of radio broadcasts of games, stating in 1925. "Baseball is more an inspiration to the brain through the eye than it is by the ear . . . A nation that begins to take its sport by the ears will shortly adapt the white flag as its national emblem, and the dove as its national bird."
After the 1919 World Series, amid whispers of game fixing, the newspaper defended White Sox executives and players, and referred to naysayers as "slimy creatures always ready to suspect and malign." Spink changed his tune as more information came out, though, and chastised the crooks associated with the scandal relentlessly. Spink furnished Johnson with valuable leads in the Black Sox Scandal while supporting the riddance of gamblers. What was good for baseball ultimately was good for The Sporting News; its circulation rose from 50,986 in the aftermath of the scandal to 90,000 in 1924.
Through all the hits and misses, The Sporting News established a passionate following. In 1922, the newspaper moved up from eight to 10 pages in order to accommodate more coverage of the minor leagues, including box scores for some leagues. "It has been a difficult matter to select from the 30-odd leagues represented in the National Association those whose box scores shall be given publication," editors wrote. "The effort has been to not only cover the territory, but to present to fans the work of players in leagues where the scouts say the best prospects dwell. Box scores of nine minor leagues, besides the two majors, will be carried this season. A conscientious effort will be made to keep all interested more fully informed of the work of players in all leagues."
The decision was not without reward, for Spink charged the league presidents for his efforts, which helped pay for editing and printing of the newspaper. Box scores of Triple-A games continued through 1967. The Sporting News covered the Triple-A and Double-A leagues with weekly reviews, notes, features, standings and statistics. The lower minors were also included with notes, standings and an occasional story.
"As a kid reading The Sporting News, I loved the idea of discovering there was a place named Kokomo and that they played baseball there," Thorn said. "It's hard for younger people in the age of the web to realize there was a time when The Sporting News, by printing brief game accounts and box scores of major league games, gave you access to things you otherwise couldn't get. Unless you lived in a major metropolitan area, you were not getting coverage of clubs other than those in your home state."
The Sporting News began naming annual award winners, including a Minor League Player of the Year, in 1936. The first recipient was pitcher Johnny Vander Meer of Durham in the Piedmont League. Two years later, Vander Meer was tabbed the TSN Major League Player of the Year after tossing back-to-back no-hitters.
Annual books also became staples of The Sporting News' empire. The editors began publishing a record book in the early 1900s and started the Baseball Register in 1940 after putting out similar volumes annually since the 1920s. In 1942, Landis gave Spink permission to take over the publishing of The Official Baseball Guide, only to rescind it later that summer when the Saturday Evening Post ran an article on Spink. In it the publication described Spink as the "unofficial conscience, historian and watchdog" of the sport before dubbing him "Mr. Baseball." Landis detested that label, believing only he deserved it. Five years later, in 1947, new commissioner Happy Chandler restored the guide's distinction to The Sporting News.
In the fall of 1942, The Sporting News delved into other sports for the first time since the turn of the century by including stories on football, boxing, professional hockey and college basketball. In the summer of 1943, the newspaper went from a broadsheet to a tabloid format.
Three years later, in 1946, Spink started The Quarterback, an eight-page section devoted to football that was printed on peach-colored paper and became The All-Sports News when football season ended. But once pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, baseball again became the magazine's sole emphasis.
Modernizing The Baseball Bible
After suffering from emphysema for years, Taylor Spink died in December 1962. He was replaced by his son, C.C. Johnson Spink, who had been part of the business since 1939 and made several changes in an effort to modernize the publication, which was now competing for subscribers with Sports Illustrated, which debuted in 1954.
One of his first moves was to do away with The All-Sports News by incorporating the other sports into The Sporting News and maintaining that coverage throughout the year. The newspaper's moniker at the time, "Base Ball Paper of the World," was removed from the masthead. "It was regarded as heresy," said Thorn. The move, however, benefited the bottom line with an increase in circulation and advertising revenue.
After decades of having the front page feature text and a cartoon, Spink replaced those with bold headlines and photographs. On April 8, 1967, The Sporting News published its first four-color production with a full-page cover photo of Baltimore's Frank Robinson.
In the meantime, the competition continued to increase. Realizing the challenges as he entered his late 50s with no heir to carry on the family business, Spink sold The Sporting News to the Times Mirror Company in 1977 for a reported $18 million, saying he wanted to make certain he knew of the direction the newspaper would head following his departure. The weekly remained one of the premier voices in baseball, but created an uproar when it decided to remove box scores during the late 1980s, bowing to their increased availability elsewhere and foretelling the information explosion of the next 20 years.
By the time The Sporting News celebrated its 100th anniversary, it had accumulated a treasure trove of baseball history that Gietschier meticulously organized.
"I was much impressed by three things," he said. "First, the collection of (photographer Charles) Conlon's glass-plate negatives—priceless artifacts. Second, the questionnaires that major leaguers filled out in their own handwriting to help us with the Baseball Register. Third, Taylor Spink's scorebook when he was official scorer for the World Series, including the triple play game in 1920."
Like most publications, The Sporting News has experienced considerable change over the past two decades while trying to find its place in an ever-evolving world of media. The magazine got a facelift in 1991 by going to a glossy, four-color format and focusing its efforts on baseball, pro and college football, pro and college basketball and hockey. And it has generally embraced technology, in April 1996 providing the bulk of the sports content on American Online, and in January 1997 debuting sportingnews.com. The company also changed its focus more from reporting to analysis, reflected in tfocus of "See a Different Game," which centered more on why events were taking place in the sporting world instead of simply reporting on what had happened.
The Times Mirror Company put The Sporting News on the market in late 1999 and sold it to Vulcan Ventures, the investment group of billionaire Paul Allen, who purchased the magazine along with SmallWorld Fantasy Games and the One-on-One Network, which was renamed the Sporting News Radio Network. Vulcan Print Media attempted to incorporate its presence via multiple media outlets, and in 2001 the magazine put increased focus on NASCAR coverage, which boosted advertising revenue at a time when many publications struggled.
Vulcan sold The Sporting News to American City Business Journals in October 2006, and the company eventually consolidated all of the staff from St. Louis to its headquarters in Charlotte, N.C. The company stopped publishing The Sporting News' books, including The Baseball Guide in 2006 and The Baseball Register in 2007, and turned its focus to electronic publishing, with The Sporting News daily iPad magazine as the most recent example.
As a result, in many ways The Sporting News of today reflects its storied past in name only. "Like many newspapers and magazines, they've struggled to find their editorial voice," Thorn said.
Yet for those old enough to remember and appreciate the information it provided from diamonds across the nation, The Sporting News will always hold a special place in their hearts as well as in baseball lore.