Putting together this week's retrospective on 50 years of SI covers was like taking the Christmas decorations down from the attic: It made us sneeze (some of our office copies are turning to dust), and it made us remember. Looking back on his 229 covers, staff photographer Walter Iooss Jr., a 43-year SI veteran, recalled the frustration he felt in the spring of 1984 while shooting candid pictures of Yogi Berra, who was then rejoining the Yankees as their manager. "It was like trying to catch a butterfly with your bare hands," says Iooss, who was working on the baseball preview. "Every time I got near him, he'd get up and move. I just kept following him around taking pictures, mostly of his back." Yogi never did sit still, but his famous number 8 became the centerpiece of that week's cover (page 98), beside the headline YOGI'S BACK!
Neil Leifer, who has shot 169 covers for the magazine since 1961, used a bit of psychology to pull off a dicey group shot of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Don King for the Thrilla in Manila preview story in October 1975 (page 130). "Back then," says Leifer, "every time the fighters got together, Ali would taunt Joe and they'd end up in a shoving match. Howard Cosell couldn't keep those two together for an interview." Leifer's solution: bar everyone from the studio except the boxers and King. "Without an audience to play to," says Leifer, " Ali was an angel."
Senior editor Bob Roe had the task of assembling the 58-page covers package, which includes the first-ever index showing all 2,548 covers in chronological order, starting with Eddie Mathews swinging for the bleachers on the issue dated Aug. 16, 1954 (page 114). Roe, who's been at SI since 1998, tapped rookie reporter Lisa Altobelli back in September to research the covers. "I ended up working with 75 pages of spreadsheets listing covers and their issue dates," says Altobelli, who is wrapping up her master's in journalism at Columbia this spring. "And I wore out the carpet between my cubicle and the SI library." As closing time drew near, says Roe, "the real challenge was getting enough pages for this and still covering the important news of the week—the NFL, NBA, NHL and the fate of Don Zimmer."
Along with deputy art director Christopher Hercik—who spent six weeks designing the package while eagerly awaiting the birth of his first child, Grace—Roe and Altobelli created lists showing which athletes, teams and sports have appeared on the most covers. Eventually they spotted some unusual patterns. "We came up with a category called Women with Weapons because there was this whole era, in the '50s, when the covers showed women with guns or bows and arrows," Altobelli says. "In the '70s there were all these men with porn-star mustaches. So we have Big Bad 'Stache as part of our style section (page 96)."
It was staff photographer Bill Frakes, however, who achieved a pinnacle of SI cover portraiture on the issue of March 1, 1993. To mark George Steinbrenner's return to baseball after a 2�-year exile imposed by former commissioner Fay Vincent, Frakes shot the imperious Yankees owner dressed as Napoleon and riding on a white horse (page 96). How hard was it to talk Steinbrenner into posing as the great emperor? "Not hard at all," Frakes says. "In fact, George supplied the horse." Which only proves that for every cover there is indeed a cover story.