The Sports Bookie -- Mullin over cartoon greatness

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Willard Mullin always corrected people who referred to him as an artist.

"I am a cartoonist,” he’d say, almost indignantly.

Right. And Picasso was a house painter.

Mullin was a sports cartoonist who elevated his profession to artistic levels. He worked during the golden age of newspapers, creating thousands of funny, pithy and poignant cartoon panels for four decades. Baseball was a particularly strong suit for Mullin, and his creation of characters like the Brooklyn Bum, Willy the Giant, the delinquent-like Philadelphia Whiz Kid, the haughty New York Yankee and the shifty St. Louis Swifty set the standard. Mullin could tell a story through his cartooning, and he told it well during his time with the New York World-Telegram and Sun.

To put some of Mullin’s best baseball drawings in one book is indeed a treasure, and the release of “Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972” (Fantagraphics Books; hardback, $35, 240 pages) captures that brilliance. Mullin, who died in 1978, was voted “Sports Cartoonist of the Century” by his peers. He gave his characters depth, dignity and made them real. His most famous figure, the Brooklyn Bum, was inspired by a taxi driver who asked, as he drove Mullin away from Ebbets Field, “How’d our bums do today?”

The Bum would come to personify the Dodgers — a scruffy, earthy sad sack who couldn’t quite reach the top rung of success. Even when the Dodgers were winning seven National League pennants between 1941 and 1956, the Bum was there to lament their World Series losses to the New York Yankees. When the Dodgers finally broke through and won their only World Series title in Brooklyn in 1955, Mullin memorably drew the Bum being led away in a straitjacket by a pair of hospital attendants, muttering “We dood it! We beat ‘em! We beat them Yankees! … “Woil’ Cham-peens! Me!”

Mullins’ fictional characters were memorable, but his caricatures of the major leagues’ best players were so dead on and beautifully crafted. His cartoons were a refreshing respite from the flowery language used by sportswriters of the time. His panels included useful information and interesting facts about the players he drew. He could be funny, or he could take a player, manager or owner to task.

What is so stunning is how Mullin could so accurately depict his subjects. Certainly, he used photographs as a guide from time to time, but strategic shading and masterful pen and pencil strokes, excellent brushwork and fluid lines gave his cartoons an almost three-dimensional look.

There are some fun facts the authors sprinkle throughout the book. For example, Mullin’s grandson, Ted Rhodes, was used as model for the New York Mets’ inaugural yearbook in 1962. Ted is drawn in diapers, while wearing a Mets cap and baseball cleats. Mullin also illustrated the feature “So You Think You Know Baseball!” for the Saturday Evening Post starting in the mid-1950s.

A 1936 cartoon, complete with a parody to Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” is reportedly the first time Lou Gehrig had been referred to as “The Iron Horse.” Another cartoon, in 1939, shows the first known drawing of the Brooklyn Bum, crashing into the first division of the National League and apologizing to the refined members (Reds, Pirates, Cubs and Cardinals) for showing up at their country club in scruffy attire: “Oh — excuse me! I musta got inta the wrong jernt!” the Bum exclaims. Leo Durocher always credited Mullin for naming the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s “The Gashouse Gang.”

There is plenty of text in this compilation, with a chapter written by Mullins’ daughter, Shirley Mullin Rhodes. Legendary Associated Press sportswriter Hal Bock also weighs in with the text about each decade, and New Yorker cartoonist Bob Staake also pays tribute. Fellow cartoonist Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News had been tapped to write the introduction, but died in May 2011. A previous article by Gallo, the creator of another lovable loser (Basement Bertha), was used instead. Michael Powers, who has cataloged more than 3,000 cartoons by Mullin, also does yeoman work.

The book is broken down by the decades, beginning with the 1930s. And while the chapters written by Bock are interesting, I have to confess that I skimmed through the type rather quickly. I was more interested — and fascinated — by the cartoons on the pages. The authors do a nice job describing each cartoon with a caption, although, to be honest, in many cases no description is needed.

I will say, though, that Bock’s chapter “Telling a Story in Pen and Ink,” provides a fine perspective in what made Mullin so successful.

“The trick is to deliver a message,” Bock writes. “Columnists use scores of words to do that. Cartoonists use pen and ink.

“The great ones do it every day.”

And without a doubt, Mullin was one of the greatest. Baseball fans with a love for history and artistic — oops, cartooning — beauty will find this compilation an excellent addition to their baseball library.
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