Farewell, Sports Illustrated


The golden oak table in my boyhood Bellingham home figured in the golden years of American magazine journalism, serving as the desk from which my mother composed articles and files for Sports Illustrated.

She spent years trying to convince SI editors at Time/Life New York to cover outdoor activity and not just what she called “sweaty socks sports.” These editors were, however, into skiing and Dolly sent off posts on crowd size on the slopes plus a memorable piece on the since discontinued July 4 Slush Cup at Mt. Baker.

The breakthrough on outdoor coverage came when she covered Sen. Robert Kennedy’s first ascent of  the 13,000-foot Yukon peak named for his late brother. Big Jim Whittaker gave RFK a crash climbing course. Kennedy was a quick learner. He took to the sport and succeeded in summiting.

The expedition produced my mother’s finest writing. She climbed to the 11,000 foot level and conveyed Kennedy’s emotions, and later rafted the Yampa and Green Rivers of Dinosaur National Monument with the Kennedy and Whittaker families. Sports Illustrated was home to fine writing and often-spectacular photography.

Alas, the greatness is long gone. SI let go its last photographer in 2015. The magazine’s latest operator laid off much of the staff this past Friday. The Sports Illustrated moniker may live on only as a marketing tool.

The culture was far different in days when SI had more than 3 million subscribers. When the magazine bit on a story idea from my mother, they would fly a photographer out from New York. Dolly, herself an accomplished shooter, seethed at not being entrusted to do the picture taking herself. Expense accounts were a part of life at Time-Life. The visiting shooter would often visit Eddie Bauer for a new outfit, at company expense.

I remember photographer John G. Zimmerman, who had decorated SI with awesome surfing shots, arriving to shoot canoe races off Lummi Island. As well, he arranged to photograph a dance troop of Lummi Reservation girls in native garb. Zimmerman focused, then started laughing; “I can’t shoot this. They’re wearing white pumps”

It was a mark of an athlete’s prestige to be on the cover of SI. But there was also the famous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Ken Griffey, Jr., was among athletes to suffer injury soon after gracing the cover. Baseball teams were knocked out of postseason play, race car drivers crashed, and NFL teams were defeated in Super Bowls.

Sports Illustrated featured fine investigative work on topics ranging from racism to head injuries to athletes. It also had a feature called “Faces in the Crowd.” A source of great pleasure for my mother was getting a shot of an achieving teenage athlete into a national magazine.

Sports Illustrated covered women’s’ athletics. I recall its compelling shots of the great lithe 1960’s runner Wilma Rudolph.  It also uncovered women resulting in massive sales of the annual swimsuit issue. Future First Lady Melania Trump was pictured embracing an inflatable orca whale.

However, weekly magazines were centers of guy culture. The family headed to New York for my mother to receive a correspondent-of-the-year award. She was received by Henry Luce. During the recognition event, however, one editor referred to her as “our little scout” in the far Northwest. My Brooklyn-born father said she should view it as an honor. But I had to talk her down, as a teenager getting a lesson in absorptive listening.

Our family experienced one tasty side benefit. In the pre-email world, Dolly’s files would be sent off “Night Press Rate —Collect” from the Bellingham office of Western Union. Local staff were fascinated by her work. Friendships formed. One Christmas Day, Joe from the office appeared on our doorstep with a gift. He had been fishing on the Skagit that and brought us a steelhead.

Overall, I would agree with writer Rick Reilly’s assessment of Sports Illustrated as told to the New York Times: “I believe it is one of the best magazines ever to exist, with some of the best photographers, editors, and writers that have ever brought to the business.”

Alas, the publications that allow to flourish great writers and great photographers have a limited shelf life these days.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. What a beautiful memory of your mother and a quick glimpse into where you got your sense of humor and love of words.
    Thanks, much needed.

  2. Jesus, going forward what are we going to be reading while waiting our turn at the dentist or the barber?

    Sorry, I’m being flip. SI really was a great magazine in its heyday. More generally, the erosion of quality journalism that went deep and provided a richness of context and insightful analysis in favor of clickbait and takes whose primary function is to ratify the preconceptions of its readership — and he increasing willingness of mainstream to ignore stories that don’t conform to, or cut against the grain of, their readers’ priors — is a huge problem, and a growing one.

    I thought James Bennet’s opus in the Economist about what’s happened with the internal culture of the Seattle Times was both clearly on target and very sad.

  3. ESPN’s website publishes some great longform, investigative stories, most recently on the behind-the-scenes details of securing Britney Griner’s release from Russia. I also recall pieces on an obscure college football player turned psychopath, and a decades-long disappearance of a former WSU coach’s mother.

    Even SI’s website had some good longform pieces, one in particular about Jerry Jones’ backroom dealings that led to the NFL Rams leaving St. Louis and returning to Los Angeles.

  4. I grew up reading the family copy of Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover, soaking up the prose of some of the best American writers. For me, it was an academy of good writing, even though I was always left wondering why so few of their writers were women. That’s why I was so pleased to hear about your mother’s history with the magazine. She sounds like a lot of fun.

    As a lifetime member of the Sidd Finch Fan Club, I will forever mourn the loss of SI for its insistence that sports writing was serious journalism, and for its refusal to take sports journalism too seriously.

  5. When I was young, I used to run to our post office box, more than a mile or so from our home every Thursday, to get Sports Illustrated out of our box. I read it cover to cover every week, and experienced a diverse and fascinating array of articles on sports and also on life. So many great stories and truly amazing pictures. For some reason, this story reminded me of one in particular- Jack Olsen’s three-part series on “The Night of the Grizzlies,” a story of the night in 1967(?) when for the first time in Glacier Park’s history, multiple bear attacks killed three people on a hot and humid August night. His details on the summer and the conditions that lead to such attacks was one of the finest pieces of journalism on the growing conflict of man and nature and how we handle our relationships with nature and wildlife, that I have read. It reminded me of the best of John McPhee and works like “Coming into the Country.” It highlights challenges still playing out across the west.

    Losing these kinds of treasures is a deep loss to our culture, and at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, this contribution to our lives is being replaced by… well I don’t want to use bad language.

    This was a wonderful story, tribute, and remembrance, to your mom and to a lost institution. Thanks so much Joel.

  6. I believe Dan Raley, who for many years was an outstanding sports reporter at the Seattle PI still writes for SI in its current digital format about UW sports.


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