Ask Anonymous • Spark and Sports Illustrated
By Anonymous Bosch

Dear Anonymous,
Like everyone else in the civilized world, I’ve been hearing the buzz about the upcoming 50th anniversary of
Spark, but isn’t it true that this year is the 50th anniversary of Sports Illustrated, too? Isn’t it ironic, or odd, or strange that both magazines started at the same time? Any comments on that, Bosch, or is this coincidence too insignificant for you to comment on?

Sincerely yours,
Lynn in New York

Dear Lynn,

Yes, both Spark and Sports Illustrated began their public lives in 1954. What you in your New York provincialism consider an insignificant coincidence may be no coincidence at all. But more about that later.

As anyone with a good almanac or Web browser will tell you, 1954 was a great year for getting something started, although it’s obvious that not only good things began that year. There were a number of not-entirely-good beginnings, too, including the introduction of weapons of war — the F-104 Starfighter and its Russian counterpart, the MIG-19 — not to mention CIA activity to oust Guzman in Guatemala, Puerto Rican nationalists who shot up five Congressmen in the House of Representatives, guerilla warfare in Algeria, the Soviet veto of plans to reunify Germany, and the move of the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City. Along with these some might group the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, followed by the Geneva Accords later in the year; the launching of the first U.S. atomic-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus; the early development of a new programming language, eventually called FORTRAN; the enormous success of television, with sets in 29 million American households; and the popularity of “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and the Comets.

Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Edition
The Calvin Spark 50th Anniversary Edition
Sports Illustrated and The Calvin Spark both began in 1954 — is it just coincidence?

But it was a good year for great things, too. Segregation was at long last determined to be unconstitutional in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. the Board of Education. Joe McCarthy’s star began to lose its lustre. Linus Pauling won a Nobel Prize in chemistry that year; Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel for literature. 1954 was, moreover, a fine year for movies: A Star Is Born, Rear Window, The Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, Three Coins in the Fountain, and The Caine Mutiny. On television there was plenty of popular fare as well, ranging from I Love Lucy and The Jackie Gleason Show to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Dragnet and You Bet Your Life. For those not committed entirely to the large or small screen, there were a few good books published that year: John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In addition, the first issue of Spark came out in March 1954, and the first issue of Sports Illustrated was published in August.

Initially, of course, both publications were small if not modest. Both Spark and SI depended on niche audiences at first, the small but impressive number of Calvin graduates and supporters, and the hardcore devotees of amateur and professional sports. Both enjoyed successes with layout, design, distribution and cost. Both attracted stories and writers well suited for the purposes of the magazine. What is not so obvious is that the magazines also shared parts of their subscription lists; many loyal Calvin grads were also athletes and fans, even after the famous Sunday schedule complications of Calvinist pitchers and hitters. Over the years, the many shared features of these two magazines also became evident: extensive reporting on an annual big game; photo spreads of the newest young talent on the faculty, staff and administration; something like a hall of fame for the great teachers, students, and leaders from the past; sustained and sometimes learned disputes over contested views of battles and outcomes; ritual celebrations and reportage of Moses and Faculty Fumbler–Les Jacques de Chimes football games. Only explicit advertising was missing from Spark. But the resemblances were otherwise remarkable; even the infamous SI swimsuit issues had their counterparts in the lovingly photographed pictures of Calvin’s campuses, sensuous and celebrative in the artistic depiction of landscape, architecture and the human form divine.

A celebrative occasion such as this is not the right venue to make the point that the older publication led the way in all of these features. Even the momentary appearance of self-congratulatory self-aggrandizement should be avoided in the interest of continued good will between these two fine publications. But seniority clearly constitutes a solid if mainly silent argument about precedence. This is a subject whose time is not right, at least not now.

Suffice it to say, loyal readers, that what started out as mutual admiration for signs of grace and power wherever they appeared, in lecture hall, life or left field, turned into quite different sets of values. Without casting aspersions, let me hint that one of these publications became more and more preoccupied with celebrity, crass commercialism, idol worship, profits and general hardness of heart. One of them still celebrates the difficult thing done well, the achievement of a great thing with polished ease, the Calvinist sprezzatura that is the true mark of vocational and personal grace everyone is looking for and glad to celebrate in others.

There are ironies indeed, Lynn, but ironies that only the trained eye can see.

Sincerely yours,
Anonymous Bosch