- - Thursday, September 19, 2013

WILLARD MULLIN‘S GOLDEN AGE OF BASEBALL: DRAWINGS 1934-1972
By Willard Mullin
Edited by Hal Bock and Michael Powers
Fantagraphics Books, $35, 200 pages

It wasn’t that long ago when daily newspapers had a sports cartoonist on staff. Many readers used to look forward to the whimsical and irreverent drawings of great teams and star players from the wild world of sports.

Yet as New York Times sportswriter Richard Sandomir noted last April, sports cartooning has become a “nearly extinct newspaper art.” The talented “newsroom denizens and deadline artists who churned out five or six cartoons a week,” who “blended the skills of a caricaturist and the mindset of a columnist” and who were viewed as “entertainers and ink-stained jokesters” are no longer in high demand.

“Long before the recent contraction in the newspaper industry,” Mr. Sandomir writes, “editors began to view sports cartoonists as vestiges of a bygone era and as budgetary luxuries.” Bob Staake also pointed out that sports cartooning “is an antiquated form of commentary that hinged on tried-and-true tricks that are considered passe and corny” in today’s society. The popular illustrator should know: He runs a stylish website dedicated to the legendary sports cartoonist, Willard Mullin.

Few illustrators ever set the bar quite as high as Mullin. His work was superbly drawn and rather lifelike at times. He won a Reuben Award and numerous National Cartoonist Society Awards. He created one of baseball’s most memorable caricatures: the infamous “Brooklyn Bum,” who represented the hapless Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers. He was even mentioned in a July 14, 1964, Peanuts cartoon, after Lucy claimed she was going to “sue everyone connected with baseball” as a result of her arm injury.

There is now a movement afoot to ensure Mullin’s legacy lives on. Hal Bock (veteran Associated Press sports columnist) and Michael Powers (a lawyer who manages the late sports cartoonist’s estate) have co-edited Willard Mullin’s “Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972,” published by Fantagraphics Books. Mullin had an amazing ability to depict baseball as a life-or-death struggle for the masses. In a time when baseball and its heroes were larger than life, this doyen of sports cartooning produced artistic works of genius that often kept his subjects both mortal and humble.

What was it that placed Mullin heads and shoulders above his sports cartooning peers? In Mr. Bock’s view, he “had a sense of humor, required for a cartoonist, and resided in a never-never land where bats and balls talked and players were drawn in broad strokes of pen and brush.” With respect to cartooning, “nothing is out of bounds.” For example, when the great Joe DiMaggio, “out of character, suggested another team was crazy to think it could beat the Yankees, Mullin wheeled out a psychiatrist’s chair.”

Page after page, this unconventional brilliance and wicked sense of humor turns up in Mullin’s “Golden Age of Baseball.” Baseball legends such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg were drawn with expertise and artistic precision. Yet all regularly suffered the same fate in having to deal with a screwy cast of nameless teammates and supporting characters.

This includes the ne’er-do-well Brooklyn Bum. As the Dodgers repeatedly lost to the New York Yankees in the World Series, the Bum gradually evolved “into a sad sack character, the perfect symbol of a struggling team.”

“If ever there was a sorry-looking character in baseball, Mullin’s Bum was the guy.”

The Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in 1955, and an over-the-moon Bum was (temporarily) taken away in a straightjacket. Mullin’s slangy and hilarious paragraph says it all, “Leave not let no one tell yez the cure ain’t not sometimes more virulent than th’ mallar-dy!”

The New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo (who passed away before writing the book’s introduction) had said in the past that Mullin “was born with a great talent for drawing” and “brought a wry sense of humor to his work, a lighthearted approach to the world of sports.”

Other great New York sports cartoonists of this era, including Thomas “Pap” Paprocki (Sun), Burris Jenkins Jr. (Journal) and Johnny Pierotti (Post), “were all formidable artists who knew sports and also had a faculty to write.” Yet when Gallo “opened the World-Telegram, there was Mullin, the Rembrandt of the bunch, the greatest sports cartoonist of all time.” Others felt the same way, too.

Sports cartoonist Drew Litton opined in Mr. Sandomir’s Times piece that his vocation is “a part of America that’s dying away.” Maybe this important and inspirational volume will help inspire the next generation of Willard Mullins to step forward.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.