In the golden age of magazines, the period 1880-1920, the newsstands were bedecked with general-interest and literary publications: the weeklies included such fare as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Magazine, and Harper’s; the monthlies boasted, among others, Atlantic, Munsey’s, McClure’s Magazine, and Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Competition for rack space was fierce, as was the competition for the eye (and pocketbook) of the browser; the fees that top writers routinely received in 1920 exceed those available today, when the dollar buys so much less; and artists whose work graced magazine covers, like James Montgomery Flagg, Edward Penfield, Maxfield Parrish, and J. C. Leyendecker, became truly wealthy.
But first-class cover art had never been viewed as a necessary competitive edge for an all-sports publication until the advent of Baseball Magazine. In December 1907 veteran Boston sportswriter Jacob Morse issued a prospectus on behalf of The Baseball Magazine Company for the creation of a new, deluxe, all-baseball monthly the likes of which had never before been contemplated. Its articles would run as long as interest held, sometimes to 10,000 words; its writers would be the best the sport had to offer; and the eye appeal of the covers would compete on the newsstand with the best general-interest publications, not to mention the specialty monthlies. Morse had written Sphere and Ash, a history of the game, back in 1888 and had even managed the Boston Union Association club in 1884.
Through its first decade or so, Baseball Magazine proved an artistic and commercial success, reaching six-figure circulations that would make a modern magazine publisher envious. Here are some particularly grand examples of the painterly elegance that was the publication’s trademark at the time. By the 1920s the covers had turned rather dull in aesthetic terms–red borders around a player photograph. This heralded not only the cost cutting that characterized the magazine industry as a whole, at the dawn of the new age of radio, but also a growing perception that on the newsstand and throughout the sports/entertainment industry, it was stars, not sensibility, that sold. More’s the pity for the culture, perhaps, but in sports as in theater, the play’s the thing, and so are the players.