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Review: 'Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball' explores a long-lost artform: sports cartooning

A book review article by: Jason Sacks

One of the many quirky artforms that have disappeared over the years is the fine art of newspaper sports cartooning. Once a thriving part of the greatest metropolitan newspapers, sports cartooning went out of style around the time that it became fairly easy to send pictures over telephone lines to newspapers, roughly the early 1960s.

Since that artform has been dead for longer than most of us have been alive, it's drifted into the same obscurity that has forgotten the great Vaudeville performers, radio drama actors and newspaper reporters.

But that's a shame because the greatest newspaper sports cartoonists were legends in their own right, none more than the great Willard Mullin.

Mullin was the dean of sports cartoonists, a brilliant cartoonist whose images entered the national lexicon and whose thoughts drove conversation in the same way that an ESPN rabble-rouser drives conversation today – though Mullin was a lot more like John Clayton than Herm Edwards.

If you don't get that reference, you might not love this beautiful coffee table collection of Mullin's art as much as I did. I've been a big fan of baseball since I was a young kid, so it was a thrill to see Mullin bring to life former players whose careers I've only read about.  This illustration of a painfully young Yogi Berra gives you an example of what I'm talking about:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

So many of Mullin's strengths are on display in this image: his lovingly realistic portrait of a player, with a delightful ink wash background behind him, juxtaposed with cute cartoons all around the image that expand on his point. The cartoons look thrown off and casual, but there's a real virtuosity to the way that he draws his figures, thick lines flowing majestically into thinner lines with a delightful joy in the pen-work.

This sort of page was a real formula for Mullin. Here's a similarly clever piece about 1950s New York Yankees pitcher Ed Lopat, this time showing Mullin's gift for silly exaggeration.

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

His passion for hyperbole and symbolism extended to his depiction of the baseball teams of the era. You may have heard the Brooklyn Dodgers referred to as "Dem Bums"; Mullin's drawing of the Brooklyn Bum would become iconic in 1940s and '50s America:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

Again, look at the artfulness of the image above, at the seemingly effortless way that Mullin combines thin and thick lines, straight black ink and ink wash, to create a lovely image.

My favorite images illustrate long-forgotten sports controversies, such as arguments about Mickey Mantle's 1957 salary – and dig the Mad Men era feel of the cartoon:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

…or a long-forgotten argument about who would sign a mediocre pitcher in 1950 – dig those cars in the background:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

Look at the majestic use of negative space in this image about legendary Yankees manager Casey Stengel:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

And this lovely tribute to Lou Gehrig:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

Not to mention Mullin's love for Babe Ruth:

Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball

Golden Age of Baseball may not be a collection for those of us who love cutting-edge comics or who want to keep up with Batman's latest adventures, but it is a lovely trip back to an era that's now long-gone, when sports cartoonists thrived in great metropolitan newspapers and professionalism ruled that profession. If you're interested in either classic sports or classic cartoonists, this book is well worth seeking out.

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