Baseball Books Reviewed: Willard Mullin's Golden Age of Baseball: Cartoons 1934-1972

Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972, by Hal Bock and Michael Powers. Fantagraphics Books, Inc., Seattle, WA, 2013. HB (picture cover), 240 pp. $35.“I am not an artist,” he was known to say, “I am a cartoonist.”

Never were both absolute truth and absolute untruth uttered more succinctly, but when these are the words famed sports cartoonist Willard Mullin used to describe his own work and profession, it’s probably not prudent to disagree. Perhaps the best way to reconcile the conundrum was perfectly addressed in Fantagraphics Books’ latest baseball effort, Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972, written by Hal Bock and Michael Powers, a sumptuous, comprehensive homage to a man aptly named by his peers as “Sports Cartoonist of the Century”.

The oversized, picture-cover book begins with a wonderful short essay from fellow illustrator Bob Staake that captures Mullin’s style, work ethic, and influence on the editorial cartoonist profession. Using words like “maestro”, “genius”, and “standard bearer”, Staake expertly describes in detail what made Mullin the king of his particular niche.

Shirley Mullin Rhodes follows with a heart-warming description of her father, then a posthumous essay on Mullin by award-winning contemporary cartoonist Bill Gallo and a quick professional bio by Hal Bock - the eminently respected sports journalist who wrote for The Associated Press for 40 years – round out the introductory chapters.

But the meat of the book is a decade-by-decade history of baseball, geared specifically toward the topics that attracted Mullin’s attention, with the treat being the hundreds of detailed, lovingly reproduced Mullin pieces interspersed throughout each chapter. We see the first appearance of the Brooklyn Dodger “Bum”, the unmistakable caricatures of baseball luminaries like Babe Ruth, Ed Barrow, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and virtually every other major player in the game.

We see him dip back in history and present short portrait essays on topics like the comparison of the famed “$100,000 Infield” of the Philadelphia Athletics with the 1942 Dodgers infield, which came in at just about double the salary of their predecessors. Readers of the New York World-Telegram were also just as likely to see the headshot renderings of famous fans like Toots Shor and George M. Cohan, as well as detailed likenesses of umpires, managers, owners, and just about everyone associated with Major League Baseball.

Of course, while those realistic pieces are simply fantastic, and the small ‘gags’ sprinkled throughout many of Mullin’s drawings wonderfully corny, his lasting legacy most likely emanates directly from his wildly inventive mascots. In addition to the Dodger “Bum”, the Pirate Buccaneer, the oversized New York Giant, the Cardinal’s slick gambler, the A’s elephant, and the Mets’ infant (modeled after his own 3-year old grandson, Teddy Rhodes) are permanently etched into the legacy and lore of baseball. While some have branded some of the more politically incorrect mascots like the Cleveland Indian and Milwaukee’s Brave as disturbing and even racist, we must remember that the term politically incorrect was a generation or two away from even being invented, and cartoons were just that – cartoons! And it’s curious that Mullin was never able to capture a suitably clever representation for the Yankees. All that bland, corporate-style winning added little fuel to the imaginative flames, I imagine.

His was the perfect melding of time, place, and medium, as Mullin worked during the hey-day of the newspaper business when cartooning was a well-respected and popular part of the newspaper business – especially the sports pages - and New York was both the epicenter of the sporting world, and of baseball in its ascendancy. Now forever replaced by scrolling box scores and 20-minute sports updates on sports talk radio, reading – whether it be the daily paper or books or magazines – is fast becoming a lost skill. But when that was all there was, Willard Mullin was the best of the best, and in Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972, by Hal Bock and Michael Powers, we get to relive the magic of a true original and talented artist during a long gone era when newspapers ruled – and Mullin was the King of the Cartoonists.