This week came the news that publisher The Arena Group was laying off virtually the entire staff of Sports Illustrated. The group had been operating with a branding license from Authentic Brands, and once it missed a quarterly license payment, the license was terminated, leading to the layoffs.
The long-venerated magazine has been published since 1954, but now its future is very much in doubt. Authentic Brands has said that the SI brand will continue in some form, but with little staff left and the reputational hit of using AI-generated content, it is hard to see how it will continue as a publication.
The magazine drew a lot of attention for its covers, using amazing images from some of the world’s best photographers. At one time, landing the cover was a big deal as an athlete, although some were wary of the dreaded “Sports Illustrated cover jinx.”
The Royals have had enough success to have been featured on the cover more than a few times. Let’s look back on some of the best Royals-related Sports lllustrated covers.
George Brett got the cover treatment a few times in his career - a 1976 cover when he was emerging as a star, a pair of covers in 1981 I’ll mention in a bit, 1984 cover as he battled injuries, and this one late in his career in 1992 as he pursued his 3,000th career hit.
Brett, sure enough, is getting it done. By Sunday, he had 2,996 hits with seven games remaining on the Royals’ schedule. The expectation is that the blessed 3,000th will fall any day now, for, as the veteran Kansas City broadcaster Fred White says, “I’ve never known George Brett to make up his mind to do something, and not do it.”
I had this cover hanging in my room in high school. Cone had just signed a big free agent contract to return home to Kansas City after winning a ring with the Blue Jays, earning a place as the cover boy for the baseball preview issue. His first year back in KC seemed a bit underwhelming when he finished with an 11-14 record, but he brought home a Cy Young Award his second season before the team shipped him away again in a cost-cutting move.
David left the meeting feeling as if the way suddenly had been made clear to him. He called Lynn, knowing she’d have mixed feelings. She was an East Coast woman and wanted him nearby, but she knew he needed to be out of New York. He called his parents and his siblings and his friends. Then three days later he and Fehr met again with Kauffman. A deal was put on the table, and Cone smiled in astonishment at the size of the bonus.
“I knew we had him then,” Kauffman would say later. “The answer was right there in his eyes.”
The Royals seemed like they should be sellers at the trade deadline in July of 2014, but by the end of August they were making a captivating run towards the post-season that would eventually see them in the World Series. Sports Illustrated took notice that month and put Billy Butler on a regional cover, the first time the Royals had been featured on the cover in decades.
The Royals, who since their championship run in 1985 have failed to reach the playoffs while losing more games than any other franchise, have refused to stop winning. After finishing July by taking seven of nine, they began August by going 13—3. They were beating good teams, too, winning five of seven from the A’s—owners of baseball’s best record—and sweeping the Giants, who are in playoff position in the NL. On Aug. 11 they tracked down Detroit to take over first place in the AL Central. Nothing, all of a sudden, had become something.
Bo made the cover of Sports Illustrated three times with the Royals - once as a farmhand in Memphis in 1986 when he chose to play baseball, once in 1987 when he chose to play football as a “hobby”, and once in 1989 when he burst into superstardom as the All-Star Game’s leading vote-getter.
No longer does one have to say “Bo Jackson” any more than one had to add a Ruth to the Babe or Presley to Elvis. Bo, in just his third full season, has reached single-name stature. And he creates the same kind of “what next?” anticipation as basketball’s Michael Jordan. “Bo is the only baseball player that you sense can do whatever he wants,” says Royals centerfielder Willie Wilson. “And you can’t wait to see him do it.”
The Royals hadn’t won a title quite yet, but his photo by David E. Klutho is one of my favorite images of all-time - it’s the wallpaper on my phone! The image was taken when Lorenzo Cain scored from first base on a single by Eric Hosmer in Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS against the Blue Jays, a game the Royals would win, clinching their second consecutive pennant. I would have this higher, but this wasn’t an official national cover - Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy made the national cover, while Cain was on the cover in selected markets (mostly in the Midwest).
“We’re all aggressive in the strike zone,” says Rios, who drove in Kansas City’s third run in Game 6 with a two-strike single. “Our goal is to keep the line moving.”
George Brett and the Royals had just faced off (and lost) to Mike Schmidt and the Phillies the previous October, so it was fitting they were the cover boys for the baseball preview the next spring. The funny thing is they used the exact some photo on the cover on August 10 when the strike ended and play resumed with the headline “Here We Go Again!”
As exciting as the Series was—six games, five decided by one or two runs—it was this Schmidt-Brett confrontation on a Sunday afternoon in Kansas City that epitomized the season: the two leading teams, the two dominant players, the best-played position.
Clint Hurdle was a career .259 hitter with 32 home runs and is better known for his managerial career than his playing days, which makes this cover from the spring of 1978 amusing now. But to be fair to his “phenom” status, he was coming off a Triple-A season in which he hit .328 with 16 home runs and 96 walks as a 19-year-old. Besides, what is spring training for if not to become irrationally optimistic about players?
The very mention of Hurdle’s name causes heads to bow and heartbeats to quicken. General Manager Joe Burke calls him “one of the best prospects I’ve seen in the 17 years I’ve been in the major leagues.” John Schuerholz, the director of scouting and player development, says “I bubble inside when I think about his potential.” Batting instructor Charlie Lau, the maestro behind George Brett’s bat, considers Hurdle “the best hitting prospect I’ve ever seen in our organization.”
The first title in club history came on a 11-0 shellacking in Game 7 over the Cardinals, following a controversial Game 6 comeback. Photographer Rich Pilling captured the celebration as Royals players piled on at the pitcher’s mound at Royals Stadium.
In a Series in which so few runs had been scored (30 by the two teams combined in six games), Motley’s blast seemed of incalculable significance. Actually, it was just a drop in the bucket. Before this night would end, the Royals would score nine more times, humiliating the proud Cardinals 11-zip, and take, as their manager Dick Howser, likes to say, “the whole enchilada.”
This photograph, by Robert Beck, perfectly captures Zack Greinke - a man at work on his craft who cares so little for the spotlight that his face is not even revealed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Greinke was dominant in 2009, winning the first of his two Cy Young Awards, and it was former Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski that finally had something great to write about the Royals.
Five years later, so much has changed. Zack Greinke has been a phenom, and he has been a bust. He has walked away from baseball, and he has come back. He has been a starter and a reliever, a genius and a flake, and even now he’s still only 25 years old.
And, for the moment, Greinke is the best pitcher in baseball.
This cover marked the culmination of an improbable two-year run that gave the Royals their second championship in franchise history. The Royals beat the Mets in five games in a series that gave us several memorable moments despite being so short. To the victors go the spoils, in this case a cover on Sports Illustrated.
Watching the Royals win the World Series with a deep ensemble cast of contact hitters raised an obvious question; Why doesn’t everybody play like this?