by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
Willard Harlan Mullin was amongst the most widely published—and culturally influential—specialty cartoonists in the country, as a sports cartoonist. Once upon a time as significant a position in the sports pages as any but now, for all intents and purposes, something of a lost art.
New Yorkers were still able to enjoy the wonderful Bill Gallo in the pages of the Daily News up to his death at 88 in 2011, but most newspapers have since dropped sports cartoons (or most anything to do with cartoons, opting for “canned” syndicated editorial cartoons if they do much of anything at all). Baltimore Sun sports cartoonist Mike Ricigliano (a youthful 59) has been downsized to Sundays, and dropped entirely from the USA Today, L.A. Times and Buffalo News; Drew Litton and Rob Tornoe are still working but can feel the bell tolling for them. Tornoe was quoted in the August 24 New York Times, “Most editors, especially sports editors, are word people who don’t see the sports cartoon as a succinct form of journalism and a different way of covering sports.”
This is much the problem throughout publishing (and effects my experience as well as an art director and designer), that word people are by the very limitations of their skill set or hard-wiring, “literal,” and as such are ill-trained and ill-programmed to make visual decisions—which is, of course, what most of them in positions of authority are charged to do. In my nearly 30 years as a graphic artist, I can count on my hand the number of editors who were “visually literate.” This is a problem, but I don’t know what the answer is. As an art director it’s part of my job description to educate and inform, but it wears when even the most basic of concepts is alien, and every situation is starting at square one. As Drew Litton noted in the New York Times, “We’re moving to a more visual society, so I’m waiting for editors and publishers to say, ‘Wait a second, we’re going in the wrong direction by cutting these cartoons.’”
It was not always thus. And it certainly was not always thus for sports cartoonists.
The golden era of the 1930s through the 1960s is representative of this. Sports cartoons weren’t just simple gags—though they could be, but also blended editorial insight, social criticism, and had an eye for the absurd that is as needed today in looking at the Big Money World of Sports at it had been in the more relatively innocent times of Mullin’s era. The sports cartoonists of Mullin’s generation were entertainers and joke writers and also news reporters of a kind. They were newsroom lifers and masters of the deadline as they churned out five or six cartoons per week—that were in many cases prominently displayed, not tucked into the back with the classifieds. Many of Mullin’s thousands of cartoons were front page art for the old Sporting News, once the bible of sports publications, as well as the lead for many a front page of the sports section, mostly for the New York World-Telegram and New York Sun (for decades, 33 years at the World-Telegram alone before it closed in 1966) which also meant syndication in the 20 other newspapers under the umbrella of the World-Telegram and Sun’s owners, Scripps-Howard; as well as the Sporting News. The Sporting News also did other publications—guidebooks for each year of the baseball season, etc., and their covers would be adorned with Mullin illustrations.
He also did the covers for many a Major League baseball team program or yearbook, especially the New York teams The Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Mets. The Yankees were well-represented in many another piece of media, including the first
ion jacket art for Douglass Wallop’s 1954 novel, The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant—later adapted into the musical Damn Yankees. Interestingly, Mullin didn’t get his start in New York (or St. Louis, home of the Sporting News), but the midwesterner began as a staff artist for the Los Angeles Herald in 1923 and eventually reached NYC (after brief stints in Fort Worth and San Antonio) in 1934.
Much like an animator, Mullin’s work was suffused with movement and life, and you could see that life in characters like his most famous creation, the “Brooklyn Bum” mascot—a colorful “dese, dem, doze,” working class-poor Dodger fanatic who later followed the franchise west, albeit incongruously—but also his “Mets kid” (first as a baby in diapers, then a feisty tyke for the rest of the 1960s and into the ’70s) and “St. Louis Swifty” characters. Mullin’s long career spanned an epic era in the history of New York sports and his cartoons and illustrations of the great Yankees teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants—loaded with stars and all-time great players—and the young Mets are iconic.
Mullin also freelanced sports illustrations and cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post and Life among many other magazines, book publishers and advertisers. Mullin received the National Cartoonist Society’s prestigious Reuben Award in 1954 and was an eight-time NCS Award winner for Sports Cartoons (1957-1962, 1964, 1965). In 1971, the society named him Sports Cartoonist of the Century. 250 of his cartoons from the 1960s are in the Library Collection at Syracuse University.