A Peek Into the Past

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Peek’Size Guide offered some the only glimpse of college football they could see. Today, it’s a window to yesteryear.

The Peek’Size Guide began publishing in 1939. Printed on glossy paper, stapled close to the two vertical ends, and measuring 2.5 by 4.5 inches, it was a manual for the college football season — handy enough to fit in any pocket, concealable enough to be brought to school. (Though if you were too brazen about it, like my friend Robert was one day in fifth grade, you might lose it for a whole week to Mrs. Shivers’ desk drawer.)

In this day of instant technology or 300-page, flashy-photoed and detailed reference pre-season magazines that provide everything you need to know about your favorite team and its upcoming season; with Sports Illustrated and ESPN in the here and now covering every moment of every game, it seems, instantly, why would anyone want, need, or use a pamphlet-styled, archaic, and seemingly obsolete-the-moment-you-buy-it, Peek’Size Guide?

Nostalgia? Memories? Connection?

Of course, all of these, because over and above the obsession with conference championships, bowl games, and the BCS, isn’t that what college football is? Nostalgia, distinct memories, and a connection to people and places we can’t visit anymore?


I know this isn’t exactly true, but it feels to me that I was as excited as a kid about getting my new Peek’Size as I was about the actual first game of that fall. Maybe because back in the early ’60s your favorite college team — and college football is and always will be predicated on having a favorite team as opposed to simply “wanting to see a great game” — could play on television only twice, at most, during any season. The rest of the year, it was radio or nothing unless you were lucky enough to get to a live game, which I didn’t until I turned nine. Most of the time, I listened to Alabama games with my dad who demanded silence and complete reverence during the game. He liked to pull a chair close to the radio that he set up in the most remote part of the house, and if it were a night game, then he’d listen completely in the dark, the glow of the radio dial reflecting on his pajama’d knees.

I mention this scene simply to contrast the almost tangible sounds of radio game experience with the flexibly firm feel of the Peek’Size Guide. Back then, as I’d examine all it contained — rosters, complete bowl history, and the scores of the previous year’s games listed in the current year’s schedule (last year’s score given only if the team you played last year was on your current year’s schedule) — I’d feel as close to the game as I could get. I memorized not only Alabama’s complete statistics, but Auburn’s, Florida’s, Tennessee’s, and every other SEC team. I’d also examine hated cross-country rivals like USC and Notre Dame, the hubristic Big Ten, and I can still see today the upset score from some ’60s year when Purdue toppled Notre Dame 28-14, or when Duke slipped past North Carolina 16-14. With Peek’Size, I knew college football even if I couldn’t see college football.

When my friend Steve’s father, who worked at Liberty National Life Insurance which subscribed to Peek’Size, brought us those guides in late August or early September all those fall seasons ago, Steve and I would hole up in the lower part of his backyard, sitting on our helmets or his old cowhide ball, and pour over the guide like it was the Bible. In fact, to me the Guide was greater than the Bible, even though I knew that to say so was taking extreme liberties with God.

But then, in the South, college football, God, and Bear Bryant all seemed incredibly mixed, indelibly stamped on each other, and in Sunday school the next day and I’m sure wherever the Church men congregated, reliving the previous day’s action got way more traction than the poor preacher’s overwrought sermon.

Like any sacred artifact, Peek’Size’s legend grew from humble beginnings. Founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1939, Peek’Size is the nation’s “longest running guide. Founder Ernest W. Peek ran the guide for 60 years. After his death in 1999, his son Herschel took over until his death in 2004. Since then the guide has been produced by another son, Leslie H. Peek, whom I spoke to last week. A labor of love for all these decades, it seems that the love affair between publisher and public might have already received its “Dear Mr. Peek” letter.

I explained to Mr. Peek how, as a boy, I lived for the guide’s yearly release, assuring him that in my hometown of Bessemer, Alabama, you could see Peek’Sizes in the hands of kids and adults all over town.

“We were still distributing the guide in Bessemer up until last year,” he said, “but that last business cancelled their subscription. That seems to be the trend.”

We both lamented that the “newfangled” technologies have made such handy guides basically obsolete. But as Leslie Peek commented in a recent interview in Knoxville, the guide allowed for, captured something unique: “A clever idea of Dad’s” was to reproduce a drawing on one of the first pages showing a boy peeking through a hole in a fence — looking for or at what? Surely it’s a football game, Peek says, because the boy is dressed in a football uniform and has a leather helmet dangling from his arm. Beside the boy is a dog: a “Pekinese.”

The beauty of this scene, a boy’s wonder at the game, attests to a world that while maybe not quite innocent, nevertheless was one where we marveled at events and histories that were at once breathtaking and seemingly impossible: Did I once really see Joe Namath wearing crimson — which showed up as simply black on our black and white Motorola — passing to Ray Ogden? Did I listen with my dad to the radio late on a Saturday night in 1964 as Alabama staved off a comeback by LSU in Baton Rouge to prevail 17-9? Did I see my future high school schedule and previous year’s record listed right there in Peek’Size Guide amidst the glory of the Michigans, Penn States, and Texas’s?

The Guide began in 1937 as a four-page foldout containing only high school schedules and information for Knox and other surrounding East Tennessee counties, but expanded in 1939 to publish college information but only in a Knoxville edition. The next year brought a Nashville edition, too, and though Ernest Peek made no money in these first years, soon demand grew so large that in the Guide’s heyday — 1970-1990 — some 40,000 guides were produced in the Knoxville and Birmingham markets alone. The Guide was ultimately published in 28 states, including Hawaii, with circulation figures reaching an all-time peak of 600,000. In that era, markets expanded to as far west as Dallas and as far south as Miami, the difference in regions being the information on local high schools.

And the other big difference: at the centerfold of the Guide is the most heated rivalry your area offers. So for me in the Birmingham region, I’d open the center to see Alabama and Auburn, their schedules and previous year’s scores. Then, on either the preceding or following page would be the faces of Bama’s Bear Bryant and Auburn’s Shug Jordan, along with one of their star players and all the information about those teams.

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Photos courtesy of Etsy

In the 2013 guide, now the inside cover features the photos and some of the previous year’s stats of both Alabama and Auburn. There are Saban and McCarron, Malzahn and Tre Mason. A few pages after, the complete scores of ten bowls through the decades are included on two pages of type so small that I believe I need a new glasses-prescription to take it all in. I do notice something called “The Peach Bowl” which, of course is now goes by its corporate-sponsored name the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Like the Guide, I do prefer the “old ways.”

There are other changes: last year’s Heisman voting is included and there sits the legend of Johnny Manziel at the top of the heap, reminding me that now Texas A&M is found in the SEC pages, though, strangely, Georgia Tech remains there too, even though it left the SEC back in ’64. I guess “old times there are [truly] not forgotten.”

When I started high school, because of racial tensions and busing and suburban academies and white flight, Bessemer High became Jess Lanier High. Now, with a new school building and a new stadium, it’s back to Bessemer City High. The “Tigers” who still wear purple and white went 5-4 last year, though on the Guide’s pages they are found way out of alphabetical order, just behind Hoover High and in front of Leeds. But they’re on the page, and for me, that’s all that matters.

They’ll be there next year, too, the 75th anniversary of Peek’Size Guide. But according to Leslie Peek, that very well might be the last year he’ll produce the guide.

“75 seems like a good year to go out on,” he said to me. Maybe so. As flipping through the guide will show, advertising is down; the outlets where you can pick one up are vanishing. Publishing in print for any genre or sub-medium is becoming a lost art and a lost business.

You can find all of this information on the web, but can you really see all this in one place, albeit a very small place? Can your football memories be condensed, captured, and then so vividly expanded and felt in any other place but a Peek’Size Guide? It is just a “peek,” seemingly, which I’m sure puts off the generations younger than mine. But back when I was a kid, unless you were rich or idle or even more obsessed than my father who, nevertheless, went to most home games through the 1970s, a peek might be all you had. A peek to an entire season. A peek which granted, for those with vision, a much longer view.

Which, finally, reminds me that while I was in grad school in Knoxville, I actually met Ernest Peek, founder of the Peek dynasty. A friend of mine rented an apartment from him at the top of a hill that overlooked the Tennessee River. He gave me a Guide that day in 1980, the first I had held for at least ten years. I mentioned this encounter to Leslie, and he told me this. His father lived and worked intentionally. And when he moved their offices to the hillside “peak,” one of the benefits it afforded him was a longer view. For on a clear day, which you get a lot of in east Tennessee, Ernest told Leslie who told me, you can see, far off on the horizon to the south, Mount LeConte, the highest peak of the Smokies.

So in the end, it does matter where you look, what you choose to “peek” at, and under the right conditions and circumstances, what you’re both willing and able to see.

Terry Barr lives in Greenville, SC, with his wife and two daughters. He is a regular contributor to CultureMass, where he writes about music and memory. His essays have also appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Full Grown People, Tell Us A Story, and Wilderness House Literary Journal.