The Keeper of the Sports Illustrated Vault
David Ortiz and Coco Crisp, 2006. Used with permission from Sports Illustrated
Andy Gray is Sports Illustrated’s special projects producer. It’s a vague title, but unfortunately he can’t get away with calling himself “editor of cool stuff.” Gray, who grew up in Framingham and went to UMass, is the keeper of the SI Vault, the 58-year-old magazine’s vast archive. He has access to thousands of stories and photographs, many of which have never been seen by the public.
“Those photos are kind of there for the taking,” Gray said. “My job is really to figure out a way to logically present them in a context that makes sense in today’s sports world.
“It’s a real rush. I go into this photo archive room in the basement of our building in the middle of Manhattan, and there are files and files of folders of photos. You go in and you see a set of photos, and all of a sudden there’s Bill Walton with no shirt on, camping. And you’re just like, ‘I can’t believe this exists.’”
His Twitter feed (@SI_Vault) and blog are repositories of entertaining and rare images, and the galleries he puts together are ridiculously popular. A recent collection of childhood photos of athletes—including Rob Gronkowski (pictured below)—drew 5 million pageviews. This week, Gray answered a few questions, shared a few photos from the Vault, and, among other things, explained his Vince Wilfork obsession.
Rob Gronkowski: Then and now. Used with permission from Sports Illustrated
What was your first job when you started full-time at SI?
SI used to have a magazine called SI On Campus. It wasn’t a full-length magazine. It was kind of almost like a flyer. It was for college students. They used to give it away free in college gyms. It was focused on college life and tailgating and stuff like that. Long story short, they thought it would be better off on the web. I was just sort coming up with different concepts to fill that page. I did that for about three years until I got to be 30 and I realized I probably shouldn’t be writing about college stuff anymore. In March of 2009, I’d say, SI Vault was launching, so I sort of got put in charge of that.
I realized in doing the Vault that as much as people like to read the old SI stories, any time I would tweet out a picture it would just get 20 times the social activity. People were a lot more into it. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of the way people are now. Obviously it’s easier to process a picture. It takes two seconds. It’s not like reading a 3,000-word story about Y.A. Tittle. At the same time, I was still a little bit surprised at how popular the photos were. When I saw that, it was kind of a process of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what stuck. The photos really stuck. Then I really dug into our photo archives and I realized, “Oh my God, there’s hundreds of thousands of photos in here that people have never seen before.”
How much of the archive is digitized and how much of it is still just purely negatives and prints?
A big year for us is 1995. For some reason, I don’t know what the legality of it is, after 1995 everything is digitized. … That’s sort of the key time. I would say 50 percent of the photos we have [are digitized]. We have an archive room downstairs and there’s a second archive in New Jersey somewhere. If I found a cool old photo set from 1962, I would have to make a request to get it from the New Jersey office. It takes a week to get.
What is the archive room like? I’m just imagining the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s a really long room with 15 rows of files and photos wall-to-wall. It’s all organized in “X” numbers. So it’s like “X00232” to “X99999.” It is what you’d think it would be.
Is there a photo you’ve posted that’s gotten the most reaction from people?
There’s three that come to my mind. One is this amazing shot of [Muhammad] Ali, it’s an aerial view from way above the ring of him and his opponent, I think it’s Cleveland Williams. It’s from 1966. It’s an incredible sports photo just because it’s an aerial shot and you can see all the writers [ringside]. From an artistic standpoint, that’s amazing. My personal favorite is a shot of Lawrence Taylor, Bill Parcells, and Bill Belichick from like 1986, where Bill Belichick has the shortest shorts on. It’s one of the most ’80s photos you’ll ever see. It’s awesome. And there’s one that’s just hysterical. … It’s the Texas Tech locker room from 2004. All the players are talking and Bobby Knight’s sort of in the background just completely passed out.
Larry Bird’s Indiana State years. Used with permission from Sports Illustrated
Do you find ways to display your Boston fandom? Do you have favorite Boston photos?
The Boston thing’s a little tricky. When I started doing it, I tweeted a ton of Boston photos because a lot of it was for my friends who were on [Twitter] and my friends’ friends and people from were Boston were saying, “this is a guy who sends out a lot of old Boston pictures. It’s pretty cool.” And then when I got to maybe 10,000 followers I started getting a ton of backlash. Just a lot of “stop all the Boston pics” and a lot of “are you related to Bill Simmons?” I didn’t really want to be that person. … I try not to Tweet six [straight] Boston pictures. But anything with Vince Wilfork I have to Tweet. I love that guy so much. I’m friends with his wife on Twitter. She’s really great.
What do you like most about your feed?
It’s unique. Being a sports fan, you’re subjected to 20 million people saying the same five things. You see the same highlights, and you read the same story over and over. I know that I’m bringing something new to the table. It’s not necessarily me. I didn’t take the photo. I just feel like the sports world now, with so many outlets, you just get saturated and usually it’s the same information presented just a little bit differently. But I think that my feed really provides something unique and different no one else is doing. And that’s what I like.