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The sports cartoon fading into history

Post by Cheryl Tucker on April 25, 2012 at 5:24 am |
April 24, 2012 3:25 pm
A recent Drew Litton cartoon

Readers who enjoy our Cartoonists Sketchpad on Saturday or the online cartoon slideshow are familiar with sports cartoonist Drew Litton’s work. He’s one of only two remaining cartoonists who focus on sports issues for major daily newspapers, writes The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir in a recent article.

I use Litton a lot in the Saturday sketchpad just because he’s so different from the other cartoonists and because I rarely get to use his work during the week on the editorial pages. And, I’ll confess, it’s a sneaky way to get readers who usually just read the sports pages to take a look at the editorial page, too.

Here’s Sandomir’s article on sports cartoonists.

Late innings for the sports cartoon

By Richard Sandomir
The New York Times

BALTIMORE – Mike Ricigliano practices a nearly extinct newspaper craft: He is a sports cartoonist, poking fun at sports figures with pen, paper and a gag writer’s shtick.

How much longer he can earn a living doing what he loves – he barely gets by now – rests on finding new work to replace what he has lost. Last year was a brutal recession for him. The Los Angeles Times, The Buffalo News and USA Today Sports Weekly dropped him, all for financial reasons.

He still draws a Sunday cartoon for The Baltimore Sun in a raw, busy style influenced by Sergio Aragones, the Mad magazine artist, and Tom Toles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Washington Post. But he recently learned there was no money to keep him sketching the Orioles bird on The Sun’s front page in various poses after wins and losses.

“I haven’t lost confidence in myself,” he said in his small, cluttered house. “I’m just perplexed about which way to use my talents. I haven’t lost my voice in this town. It’s just not producing income.”

Ricigliano’s upstairs desk and basement drafting table are overwhelmed by the toys, dolls, pennants, hats, pens and Pez dispensers that have taken permanent residence there. He has no filing system for his large archive and little space to work in, but there has not been much to do lately. He hopes that a website designed by one of his sons will attract business – even if he has to draw without pay for a while.

“I feel like I’m not doing my job if I don’t put cartoons out there,” said Ricigliano, 59, who was wearing an Orioles cap over his gray hair, a hoodie and faded jeans. “I’m out on a limb with no safety net.”

Drew Litton and Rob Tornoe – likely the nation’s only other regularly published major daily newspaper sports cartoonists – are struggling less but still feel the pinch of an industry that no longer prizes them. There is more job security in being an editorial cartoonist and dip into sports, as many do.

“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,” said Tornoe, 34, whose sports cartoons appear in The Philadelphia Inquirer but who also draws editorial cartoons for various outlets.

Litton said: “It’s a part of America that’s dying away. I feel we’re losing a vital medium.”

It was easier for their predecessors, especially in the golden era from the 1930s to the 1960s. They blended the skills of a caricaturist and the mindset of a columnist. They were entertainers and ink-stained jokesters. They were newsroom denizens and deadline artists who churned out five or six cartoons a week that received prominent display. If they possessed power, it was that they drew players, owners and managers in ways that reporters could not with their words.

Sports cartoons were usually more amusing and informative than critical, which reflected the times when sports sections were the fun and games departments.
Some cartoonists created indelible characters that engaged and comforted readers.

Who can forget the unshaven Brooklyn Bum, created in the 1930s by Willard Mullin of The New York World-Telegram, who connected with fans viscerally long after the Dodgers’ Bum days were over? Or Bill Gallo’s Basement Bertha, the New York Mets’ washerwoman fan, and his George Steinbrenner-like General von Steingrabber (with spiked helmet and exaggerated German accent) in The Daily News?

“They were kind of visual columnists,” said Larry Merchant, the former New York Post sports columnist who has an original Mullin cartoon of Casey Stengel hanging in his office in Santa Monica. “With the stroke of a pen, they animated the page, maybe in a way that even photographs could not.”

Mullin was the dean of newspaper sports cartoonists, a gifted draftsman and writer whose signature looked like blades of grass. He spent 33 years at The World-Telegram before it closed in 1966; his work also appeared in Life, Collier’s, Time, books, the covers of Mets yearbooks and in advertisements.

His final cartoon for The World-Telegram (by then merged with The New York Sun) was a vivid illustration of the boxers Dick Tiger and Emile Griffith. He loved to draw boxers because “they’re completely basic; you don’t have to know what inning it is,” he told The Times in 1978.

Bob Staake, an artist whose website features a gallery of Mullin cartoons, said that Mullin had a “highly nuanced understanding of anatomy and sports, such as the way he drew a thigh guard on a running back in the ’50s.” He added, “He captured animation in a still image in an uncommon way.”

One of Mullin’s disciples, Charlie McGill, the former sports cartoonist for The Record, which is now based in Woodland Park, N.J., recalled a nugget of practical advice from Mullin: “Keep the Sears Roebuck catalog for research. Say you’re drawing a vacuum cleaner; it’s tough to make it up out of your head if you’re on deadline.”

There were others, of course: Leo O’Mealia, who preceded Gallo at The Daily News; Karl Hubenthal at The Los Angeles Examiner; John Pierotti of The New York Post and Thomas Paprocki of The New York Sun; Dick Dugan at The Cleveland Plain Dealer and Lou Darvas at The Cleveland Press; Jerry Dowling of The Cincinnati Enquirer; and Murray Olderman of the syndicated Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Long before the recent contraction in the newspaper industry, editors began to view sports cartoonists as vestiges of a bygone era and as budgetary luxuries. “Sports cartooning is an antiquated form of commentary that hinged on tried and true tricks that are considered passe and corny,” Staake said.

No full-time sports cartoonist has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, but at least two past winners, Rube Goldberg (1948) and Paul Szep (1974 and 1977), drew sports cartoons early in their career.

Gallo was the bridge between his craft’s heyday and its lean times in New York. When he died last year, the tradition of the star sports cartoonist left with him. “I wanted to be a sports cartoonist because of him,” said Ricigliano, who grew up in Brooklyn.

Gallo was a man about town, a major figure for a half-century at The Daily News who also loved and wrote about boxing. In addition to the broad humor of his von Steingrabber cartoons, he moved readers emotionally, no more so than on the day after Thurman Munson died in a plane crash in 1979.

Gallo drew one of his recurring characters, the neighborhood kid Yuchie, and his pal (both were seen in silhouette) leaving a sandlot crying as Munson looked down from heaven.

“Naw, Yuchie,” his friend says, “I just don’t feel like playin’ ball today.”

In his book “Drawing a Crowd,” Gallo wrote: “The look on Munson’s face is almost saying, ’Don’t be sad.’ But the kids, they’re walking the earth, they’re in the real world, so they have no heart to play.”

One of Gallo’s sons, Bill Jr., said his father “was a gifted artist, but he didn’t dwell as much on the art as much as the message.” He continued, “He was very funny, in a soft-spoken way; basically, he was writing six jokes a week.” He sent in cartoons from his hospital bed until he was too ill to work, Bill Gallo Jr. said.

“He plodded along and did what he loved,” he said. “He was a lifer.”

At The Daily News, which still sells copies of Gallo’s cartoons, no one is drawing in his place. “I applied,” Ricigliano said, “but they said they just weren’t replacing him.”

Litton felt he would be a lifer until The Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009. He had arrived in Denver from El Paso, Texas, in late 1982, months before John Elway was traded to the Denver Broncos.

It was also early in Dan Reeves’ coaching tenure there. “So I was able to cover Elway and develop those wonderful teeth of his,” Litton said. “And I was able to draw Reeves two inches tall. I imagined him as a mouse in the maze that was his offensive plan that he couldn’t figure his way out of. He had a paranoid personality, like Nixon.”

Litton, 53, has recovered from The Rocky Mountain News’ shutdown by building his website, adding The Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com as freelance outlets and moving to the Universal Press Syndicate.

Still, he is concerned. In 2010, he did a weekly animated cartoon on ESPN.com for its “Monday Night Football” coverage but it was not renewed after it failed to garner enough advertising support.

“We’re moving to a more visual society,” Litton said, “so I’m waiting for editors and publishers to say, ’Wait a second, we’re going in the wrong direction by cutting these cartoons.”’

The view was echoed by Larry Johnson, a former sports cartoonist for The Boston Globe and The National whose work now appears on the website of WEEI Radio, where he is a weekend sports-talk host.

“Off-the-field things like the New Orleans Saints’ bounties scream out for more people with a visual point of view,” he said. “The Internet is really changing the culture.”
Like Ricigliano and Litton, Tornoe said that readers have a strong reaction to his cartoons.

“People will cut out cartoons and put them on a fridge, but not a column,” he said.

Ricigliano’s natural optimism is balanced by thoughts of his career being prematurely sidelined. His talent has not dissipated, and he can still dash off a cartoon about the ups-and-downs of the Baltimore Orioles or Ravens, tackle a national subject as he regularly does, or adapt to other local markets, as he did in Buffalo and Los Angeles before the cash ran out.

“My challenge is to reinvent myself,” he said, but later added, “I hate to think this is in the past.”

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