Willard Mullin

The Champion of the Sporting Life
(This article appeared previously in The Comics Journal)

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 February 24, 1949. Mullin had enjoyed the cocktail hour before dinner and cocktails during dinner, and when Milton Caniff, then president of NCS, stood up after the meal and called the meeting to order, Mullin apparently thought his recreation was about to be interfered with. He lurched to his feet, supporting his considerable presence with both hands on the table.

            “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.

            Mullin 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 California in 1906, and very early in life, young Willard developed a love for sports and resolved to become a sports cartoonist. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1920, he took a job in the sign department of Bullock’s department store, where he perfected his lettering technique while awaiting the knock of an opportunity to enter the newspaper business as an artist. The knock came on January 1, 1923, at the Los Angeles Herald, and he joined its four-man art department and worked there until 1934 except for two brief sojourns in Texas on the staffs of other Hearst papers. Early in 1924, young Mullin spent several months doing promotional cartoons to drum up circulation for the San Antonio Light; and for most of 1925, he ran the art staff of the Fort Worth Record, returning to Los Angeles when the Texas paper folded. At the Los Angeles Herald, he began by performing routine art chores during regular working hours (lettering headlines, retouching photographs, doing layouts) while volunteering for evening assignments sketching sporting events, boxing particularly.

            “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.

            In 1929, Mullin got married in Yuma, Nevada. He married Shirley Tousley, a girl from Illinois whose family had trekked to California about the same time the Mullin family did. The Mullin-Tousley courtship took a long time. In those days, most courtships took a long time, but this one took longer, apparently, than most. Gil Wheat, a friend of Mullin’s youth and maturity, explained why: “The reason for the long courtship is known to few, but here it is: Every now and then, whether parked on a secluded drive over looking the lights of Hollywood or tucked away in a garden out of sight of the party of the evening, Willard would maneuver the opportunity to pitch a little woo to Helen. Sooner or later, he would prepare to pop the $64 question. Each time he would get about half-way through his proposal some darn thing would strike him funny, and he would toss in a wisecrack. The result was always the same: Helen would laugh at it, and then at him, and he would have to start the courtship all over again. Helen will admit that she has found out that a man can have a good head and a great heart and still be unable to resist the impish impulses a good sense of humor generates. However, she can’t be blamed for having taken some time to come to that conclusion.”

            They got married in Yuma because of another complication. Mullin explained this one: “That summer [of 1929] we planned to take our vacation together with my mother. At the last moment, however, Mother became ill. In one of my rare bursts of logic, I decided that the best way to handle the chaperone problem was to preclude any reason for one. The three-day law applied in California, so we drove to Yuma, Nevada.” The wedding was at 10 p.m. on July 20. Eventually, they had one daughter, Shirley.

            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.”

            It 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 New York newspapers in the mid-1960s. He settled his family first in Jackson Heights, moving in 1939 to Plandome, Long Island, and retiring, in 1971, to Pointe Verde Beach, Florida.

            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 10 o’clock 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 4:22 p.m. 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.”

            His 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 Syracuse University.

            His 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 Los Angeles.

            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, New York, that is.

            “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.’”

            The 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 of New York watering holes—sports celebrities, newspaper and magazine reporters—as well as athletes.

            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.”

            Mullin died of cancer while visiting his daughter in Corpus Christi, Texas, on December 21, 1978. By then, he’d more than paid his dues.

            Here's a gallery of Mullintoons.

Return to Harv's Hindsights


send e-mail to R.C. Harvey
art of the comic book - art of the funnies - reviews - order form - rants & raves  Harv's Hindsights - return to main page