Willard Mullin, the nation’s foremost sports cartoonist,
secured his place in the lore of the National Cartoonists Society at the
regular monthly meeting on
“Mr. President,” he slurred, “may I call you a son’v’ bitch?”
Caniff looked down the table to Marge Devine, NCS’s faithful scribe, and said: “Margie, are his dues paid?”
“Yes,” she said, over the chuckles on all sides.
“Willard,” Caniff said, turning to the weaving sports page giant, “you have permission.”
“Okay—you’re a son’v’bitch,” Mullin intoned. And then he sat down quietly and disappeared almost at once below the horizon of the table.
Mullin, like everyone worth mentioning in sports, played hard.
had first loomed up on the horizon in Franklin, Ohio, on September 14,
1902, christened Willard Harlan by his father, Milo Mayberry Mullin, a
dairy farmer, and his mother, Edna Marie Ballard. The Mullins moved to
“Every chance I got, I would work nights to try to get a sports cartoon into the paper,” Mullin said. Over the years, his sports cartoons appeared more and more frequently, but Mullin remained a general assignment artist rather than a sports specialist.
1929, Mullin got married in
got married in
In the fall of 1934, Mullin heard that the New York World Telegram was looking for a sports cartoonist. “All the clips and originals of my sports stuff I could lay hands on were forwarded to Joe Williams [satrap of the sports page at the World Telegram],” Mullin said. “I must have sent a bale of stuff: postage alone came to $5. And that was a lot of dough to me in those days. Something must have pleased him: I was the lucky one to get the job.”
was the job he had “always wanted,” he said, and he remained with the
paper until it collapsed in 1967, casualty of a disastrous succession
of printers’ strikes that destroyed
For most of his 33-year career with the World Telegram, Mullin’s cartoon ran large across the top of the first page in the sports section, five or six columns wide on an eight-column format, six days a week. The page layout was modified to suit whatever configuration Mullin conjured up for his cartoon, and the cartoonist, believing that one of the chief purposes of a sports cartoon is to “dress up the page,” exploited this sufferance, often producing a cartoon of irregular shape—tall and skinny, fat and wide, or gerrymandered to fit the shape of the figures in the picture. Just as his cartoon dominated his paper’s sports section, so did Mullin tower over his profession: his distinctive style soon set the fashion for all sports cartoonists.
A sports cartoon, Mullin once wrote, should “tell a story, get over a point, cover some news, or bring a laugh.” On a good day, he said, he’d get all four in one cartoon. He conceived his cartoons as if he were writing a sports column. An opinion column, not a newsstory. In covering a sporting event, he looked beyond the event itself. “It would seem superfluous to tell the story of a particular World Series game as such,” he said. “Rather, the significance to the Series of that particular game or the pre-game dope would be a better angle for a cartoon. It’s my belief that a sports cartoonist should be a personality himself. He should take a stand on things, stick his neck out on predictions and guesses and not merely report an event.”
Typically, Mullin declared his subject for the day with a large realistically rendered portrait of an athlete; and then he developed his story—an observation or comment on the athlete’s most recent accomplishment—in a series of small figures (sometimes called “goomies”), often caricatures of the principal subject, in topical vignettes that surrounded the large picture. Sometimes the large drawing depicted generic athletes of a particular sport, and Mullin’s commentary explored the state of that sport or some aspect of the news about it. Sometimes his cartoon took shape as a series of narrative pictures in comic strip form. He considered everything—and he capitalized it: EVERYTHING—legitimate grist for his mill. Advising would-be sports cartoonists, he said: “Don’t let your mind be bounded on the north by baseball and on the south by football, on the west by hockey and basketball and on the east by racing. The news in the daily papers—that goes for the front page and the editorials, current plays and bestseller books—all may [furnish] a hook to hang a gag or situation on. History is a great source of situations that could be analogous to some sports situation. Literature is a great prop.”
Mullin was an ardent sports fan, and his passion showed in the vigor of his drawings. To preserve the energy of the creative act itself, he worked from preliminary sketch to final drawing on the same piece of art paper. In his drawings, he tried to capture the feel rather than just the appearance of the action. To this end, he exaggerated both anatomy and motion, enlisting the entire figure in his expression of an idea. "You start with the thought and feeling of the action,” he said. “A few lines will give you the sweep of the runner’s legs and forward thrust of his body.”
Mullin’s football player running for a touchdown did not simply run: he bent forward at the waist and again at the ankles, assuming a charging, jutting off-balance posture that however impossible in actuality was vivid in suggesting the velocity and determination of his progress.
Mullin’s athletes were bony and muscular caricatures of their breed; supple in motion, loose-limbed and sinewy rather than muscle-bound, they captured perfectly the pure physicality of sport. The large pictures in his cartoons were rendered in matchless fluid line with a brush; the smaller action figures, with a delicate penline. “A brush is a versatile tool,” he said. When he came to ink his drawing, he preferred to use “an old No. 3 Winsor Newton, slightly moth-eaten with uneven hairs at the end—in short, a brush you can’t quite handle. This gives freedom and interesting incidental lines.” Mullin usually gave the large rendering in his cartoon a soft, gray tone by shading pebble-finish art paper with a crayon; the small pictures he embellished with strategically placed solid blacks and gray tones.
During his last seventeen years with the World Telegram, Mullin worked at home in Plandome. His usual workday began at in the morning and went well into the afternoon. When he finished his cartoon, he took it a hundred yards down the street to the Long Island Railroad station and handed it to a conductor on the Manhattan-bound train; the conductor then passed it along to a waiting messenger at Penn Station to take to the paper’s office. “If I was able to catch the train,” Mullin said, “I’d toured the course in par.”
In later years, though, he could do the day’s cartoon in fewer hours. “It’s not so much the added facility of your skills as the ever-increasing background and knowledge you pile up that makes for quicker and more efficient production,” he wrote in what passes for his autobiography, A Hand in Sport. (A notable volume, composed with the help of sports writer Dave Camerer, it offers only 30 pages of autobiographical text but 190 pages of cartoons reprinted from every period of Mullin’s career with his running commentary underneath each picture. The dust jacket illustration—a giant hand with athletes of all sorts standing in the palm—was originally intended to grace a biography of sports writer Grantland Rice; it wasn’t used for that, however, so Mullin used it here and probably entitled the tome to suit the picture.)
About the art of cartooning, Mullin said: “I don’t lose sight that cartooning, while it’s a definite art form, is not putting oil to canvas. I work on a conveyor belt basis—six days a week, including Saturdays—and, quite frankly, I’d have been wearing a double-breasted straitjacket years ago if I demanded absolute perfection—something I shoot for, naturally, but seldom realize.”
In addition to drawing his daily cartoon, Mullin illustrated hundreds of advertisements, books, and articles in such magazines as Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, Time, and Newsweek. Asked, once, which of his cartoons was his favorite, he said, “That’s like asking a fruit dealer to name his best individual orange.”
work appears in few books, most of which he illustrated for others: Menke’s Encyclopedia of Sports (1944), John Lardner’s
It Beats Working (1947), Red
Smith’s Out of the Red (1950).
He also edited and illustrated The
Junior Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sports (1960) with Herbert Kamm
and wrote and illustrated Lesson 23 of the Famous Artists Cartoon Course
(c. 1955) in which he explains in graphic detail how he composes his cartoons.
According to Mullin, the only substantial collection of his original art
is held in the manuscript collection of the Bird Library at
pictures became virtually synonymous with sports; his symbols, their visual
lexicon. Football teams were represented by their mascots (usually animals),
basketball players were skinny and awkward, and boxers were wide-eyed
innocents. The New York Giants he depicted as a huge, amiable lout with
huge feet and a tiny head; the Milwaukee Brave was beer-bellied (in recognition
of the brew for which the city was famed); St. Louis Swifty,
a Mississippi riverboat gambler, was a “card” sharp (evoking the nickname
for the Cardinals); the New York Yankees were somewhat snooty city-slickers
in pinstripe uniforms. Mullin’s prized creation, however, was the Bum
who stood for the Brooklyn Dodgers before the Dodgers moved to
The beloved tramp was born one day in the late 1930s just after the underdog Dodgers lost another one at Ebbets Field. Mullin was taking the cab back to the newspaper office, and the driver asked him, “How’d our bums do today?” The next day, the woebegone hobo debuted in the newspaper.
“I admit that the Brooklyn Bum is my deepest professional delight,” Mullin said. “It’s not that he’s pretty—he ain’t; it’s simply that he affords a wonderful peg from which to hang any baseball idea that can be tied to the Dodgers.”
And not just the Dodgers. And not just baseball.
“The Bum has given me a lingo that blends, occasionally, to an entirely
different character,” Mullin said. By way of example, he cited the cartoon
he drew commemorating the deadline for submitting income tax. “I drew
the Bum that day in the throes of anguish. Up to his scuppers in government
forms, the Bum says, ‘It won’t be the first of September I can’t get this
thing done until.’ Aside to Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Johnson: This is
the perfect King’s English—King’s County,
“By now, I think of the Bum as being alive,” he went on, “complete with a personality (he’d say poisonality) of his own. Out of his own cock-sureness and belligerence, the ideas come in flocks—to the point where I actually have to ration my ideas about the Brooklyns, bless ’em.”
Out of our world of sports, Mullin fabricated another world, part fanciful, part real, all his own. “If you are like most of us,” Joe Williams wrote in the introduction to A Hand in Sport, “you find that you have cheerfully taken up residence in Mullin’s personally constructed Never Never Land, a land where nothing could be more normal than ten pins that walk and talk and rout bowlers with indignant furies; where beer guzzling Indians with aldermanic bellies and fierce Milwaukee loyalties argue baseball in a German dialect that is an inspired mixture of Weber and Fields and pure Sioux; and, of course, amid such commonplace and conventional behaviors, you quite naturally expect to find a garrulous, aromatic, unwashed bum in skidrow tatters who, until he moved west, interpreted the emotions and philosophies of the most populous borough in America’s largest city.
“Now, gentleman,” he concludes, “you simply don’t get that way on vin ordinaire. You must treat yourself to the distillation of a very special kind of grape. It goes without saying it will be the kind you won’t find just any old place. We’ve heard some people call it the ‘heady wine of genius.’”
grape of genius wasn’t the only intoxicant in Mullin’s world. He enjoyed
saloon life, consuming both food and drink with appreciative gusto, and
was close friends with many fellow habitues
Sports columnist Red Smith wrote: “For approximately forever, Mullin did a daily cartoon . . . . The National Cartoonists Society saluted him as Sports Cartoonist of the Century, an understatement. He was the sports cartoonist of the eras, including the Paleozoic, because there never was another who combined such news sense and wit and perception with such a comic pen.”
died of cancer while visiting his daughter in
Here's a gallery of Mullintoons.