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Sports Cartooning's (Former) Golden Age

By: Michael Taube
September 5, 2017

he art of cartooning has a long, rich history. Benjamin Franklin drew and published the first political cartoon—the famous cut-up snake with the immortal words, “Join, or Die”—in a 1754 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, while Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid” (1895-1898) was one of the first daily comics. Newspaper comics and political cartoons have remained popular, but sports cartoons, equally venerable, have not.

Most major newspapers used to have a sports cartoonist on staff. In 2012, the New York Times’s Richard Sandomir noted that the “newsroom denizens and deadline artists who churned out five or six cartoons a week, blended the skills of a caricaturist and the mind-set of a columnist.” The final products were amusing and informative, but not critical. Unfortunately, “long before the recent contraction in the newspaper industry,” wrote Sandomir, “editors began to view sports cartoonists as vestiges of a bygone era and as budgetary luxuries.” Their numbers rapidly dwindled, and sports cartooning is today regarded as a “nearly extinct newspaper art.”

That said, small glimmers of light remain. One of the last, great sports cartoonists is 95-year-old Murray Olderman. Long since retired, he continues to release the occasional book collection of previous drawings. His most recent work, The Draw of Sport, examines an incredible, six-decade career.

Olderman’s first exposure to sports cartooning came during the Great Depression. Each night, his father would gather up “the New York newspapers left on the seats by the other riders and bring them to me to pour over.” Depression-era New York had twelve dailies, “and every one of them, except the very august Times and the almost-august Herald-Tribune, had a sports cartoonist whose work was prominently displayed on the first page of the sports section, which I turned to immediately.”

He idolized the industry’s legends: Willard Mullin’s “sprawling pen-action figures,” Burris Jenkins Jr.’s “dramatic realism” and “flowing drawings,” and Tom Paprocki’s “precise portraits surrounded by goomies [little sketches].” To improve, Olderman tried “to emulate them in my naive way.” Some of his early work appeared in Nyack’s Journal-News, the Chicago Daily News, and various college publications.

In 1947 Olderman was offered his first job as a sports cartoonist, feature writer, and sports reporter for three McClatchey newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee. For these services, he received “sixty dollars a week, which was twenty dollars more than I was offered by the Des Moines Register.”

And so it began.

His first published cartoon was of Eddie Fitz Gerald, a catcher for the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento Solons. It’s not a drawing he remembers proudly: “I cringe as I look at the drawing.”

I had a facility for rendering the main figure, using a photograph as my guide. The rest of the art, created out of my head, is substandard, with no flow, sense of anatomy, or the drape of clothing, and the design is terrible. I had much to learn about cartooning and developing a style.

With the help of colleagues like staff artists Courtney Alderson and Newton Pratt, he did just that. Eleanor McClatchey, the youngest daughter of the papers’ founder, also played a role by asking him to create some cartoons of California’s historical figures, which she “bound in a booklet that was distributed to school systems.”

Olderman moved to the Minneapolis Star, but was quickly put off by Minnesota’s cold winters. With a friend’s help, he got in contact with Boyd Lewis, editor of Scripps-Howard’s news syndicate, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, located in New York, which was having “a mid-winter thaw.” He and his wife agreed to “get out of here,” and he quickly sent in an application. Within days, Lewis called him and said, “Do you believe in fate? We just decided that we want to develop a sports comic strip.” He was offered the role, and never looked back.

For this volume, Olderman limited the content “to those I had some interaction with; that compromises a personal, meaningful collection of those who had a profound impact on the sports world since I embarked on my quest as a cartoonist-journalist more than half a century ago.” Each cartoon in The Draw of Sport is, therefore, not only beautifully drawn, but tells a unique story.

Former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, the “taciturn Texan” and “smartest football man I ever knew,” has cartoonish game players and strategies popping out of his trademark fedora. Baseball great Reggie Jackson, “ingratiating and moody by turn,” has expletives coming out of his mouth—and a bystander covering himself with an umbrella for protection from Jackson’s rant—during his days with the Oakland A’s. Another baseball great, Jackie Robinson, “the combative soul of a championship team,” is sliding into home plate with words like “controversy,” “disputes” and “feuds” clearly visible in the clouds of dust. Jack Nicklaus, “the greatest golfer ever,” was displayed as a “rotund” figure on a Olderman-drawn Golf Digest cover due to his “wide-bodied, squat, rumpled” physique. Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, “who ran the show on the sidelines,” holds a massive globe entitled “NFL Future” with “The Player” standing on top of it because “[h]e’s got the kid’s whole world in his hands.”   

Other highlights include cartoons of the incredible Boston Celtics coach/general manager Red Auerbach (a “traditionalist” who “liked the game as it was. Which in his case was very good”), basketball star Wilt Chamberlain (a “nice, genial guy to be around,” although he “sensed a lonely searching in him”), tennis great Chris Evert (who had “an incomparable competitive streak with a steely demeanor that earned the cognomen of ‘Ice Maiden’”), baseball legend Willie Mays (“refreshing and engaging,” and the “life of a continual party”) and the brilliant baseball player/manager Casey Stengel as the New York Yankees skipper (a “calculating, cranky old man, a tyrant to his players”).

As one would expect, Olderman is saddened by the gradual elimination of sports cartooning. At “a time when sports increasingly plays a bigger role in our culture,” he writes, “there are development that virtually beg for cartoon reaction and comment.” Unfortunately, the modern sports section is “bare of comment through expressive editorial art” and the “sports cartoon as we know it is virtually extinct...In its place is that cliché half-tone photograph of a runner sliding into second base.”   

It’s a shame that sports cartooning is unlikely ever to regain its former glory. We can only hope that editors, publishers, and owners may reconsider the question after thumbing through The Draw of Sport. Even in these exceedingly difficult financial times for the newspaper industry, bringing back a bit of humor to the sports page could be an antidote that the journalism industry sorely needs.