Ask Babe: Hunting Sports Illustrated early issues

Nov 17 2011 - 6:33pm

Dear Babe: You have written about the first and second issues of Sports Illustrated. Do you happen to know the print run of these two magazines? -- Roland Garn, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Dear Roland: It's nice to get a change of pace about the first issues of Sports Illustrated, dated Aug. 16 and 23, 1954.

As far as Da Babe can tell, no one has really tried to figure out approximately how many issues are out there. I was told that the first two magazines went to subscribers of Time and Life, which would mean millions of copies went out.

However, Bill Hooper, a Time-Life archivist and winner of a Henry Luce Lifetime Achievement Award, disputes that. He used his skills at searching the archives to estimate the numbers of issues mailed and sold on newsstands.

While Hooper could not find exact print orders, he discovered a memo to the SI ad sales staff, dated Nov. 18, 1954, that lists the "Estimated Net Paid Circulation for the first 13 issues." It indicates the first issue of SI had an estimated net paid circulation of 515,000. The second had 507,000.

Hooper found another memo, dated Oct. 11, 1954, "that breaks down 'Newsstand draw, sale and returns"' for the first two issues. For the first issue, the draw was 198,000. Of those, 191,000 sold with 7,000 being returned. For the Aug. 23, 1954, issue, the draw was 199,700 with 183,000 sold and 16,700 returned.

He also found a memo dated July 21, 1954, that includes rough numbers for the free promotional mailings of Volume 1, No. 1, totaling just under 60,000. According to this document, approximately 55,000 issues were to be sent to members of major sports associations and organizations. The rest were intended "for a special list of editors, publishers and presidents of leading newspapers and a special list of the publisher's business and personal friends and acquaintances, particularly those who have an interest in sports."

Hooper stressed that he could not find any documentation that copies of the first two issues were sent to every subscriber of both Time and Life. He noted that in 1954, Life magazine had approximately 4.3 million subscribers and Time had approximately 1.6 million.

"However deep our pockets might have been in 1954, I think it is most unlikely that we would have paid for the printing and postage for approximately 6 million complimentary issues of Sports Illustrated, two weeks running," Hooper said.

"We did send circulation promotion letters to subscribers of Life, Time and Fortune, trying to drum up subscriptions for Sports Illustrated -- which was reasonably successful. Before the magazine's name was even announced, in June 1954, we had sold approximately 250,000 subscriptions. Between then and the publication date, another 100,000 subscriptions were sold."

(Send card questions to Babe Waxpak at or PO Box 492397, Redding, CA 96049-2397. If possible, include card number, year and brand or a photocopy. Please do not send cards. For Babe Waxpak's blog, see Babe Waxpak is a feature of The Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif.)


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