Baseball history in cartoonist’s vision

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Hal Bock’s earliest boyhood baseball memories are the cartoons Willard Mullin drew of characters like the iconic Brooklyn Dodgers bum in the New York World Telegram.

So it’s only natural that Bock, a longtime East Williston resident retired from a storied Associated Press sportswriting career, has written a book about Mullin, using the cartoons to illustrate the history of American professional baseball over Mullin’s career from the 1930s through the early 1970s.

“The cartoons were so striking. I thought they were good material for a book,” Bock said in an interview with Blank Slate Media last week. “Mullin was a giant in the field.”

The book, “Willard Mullin’s Golden Age of Baseball Drawings, 1934-1972,” was to be released by Seattle-based Fantographics with baseball season’s first innings this week, according to Bock. But he said the publisher has delayed its release until July 19.   

Bock aspired to be a sportswriter from the first time his father took him to see the New York Giants play in the Polo Grounds when he was 10 years old. 

After graduating from New York University with a journalism degree in 1960, he got a job working as an assistant to World Telegram sports columnist Phil Pepe. 

So Bock had an opportunity to watch Mullin, who lived for many years in Manhasset, work on those relatively rare occasions when the cartoonist came to the newspaper’s Manhattan newsroom.

In the book, he describes Mullin climbing up on a high stool before the easel he kept in a corner of the newsroom, hooking his feet on the legs of the stool and working on each pen and ink drawing without stopping once he started. 

Apart from the pen, his constant companion was a dictionary due to his sub-par spelling skills, Bock said.

“Most things, he knocked right out. He knew where he was going. He just followed the news of the day,” Bock said. “I was taken aback by the whole scene.”

When New York Yankees pitcher Tommy Byrne couldn’t find home plate one day, Bock penned a whimsical scene of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra struggling to catch a wildly errant pitch – an image that graces the book’s cover.

By the time Bock was watching Mullin work, the legendary cartoonist had created signature characters representing major league baseball teams. 

For the St. Louis Cardinals, he created a riverboat gambler. For the Philadelphia Phillies “Whiz Kids” of the early 1950s, he drew a kid with slingshot in his back pocket.

“A lot of images were naturals,” Bock said. 

Mullin drew Willy the Giant – preceding Willie Mays – for the New York Giants, an Indian chief for the Braves and a swashbuckling pirate with cutlass and eye patch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Mullin’s New York Yankee was an aristocratic figure with a prominent chest to symbolize the team’s preeminent status in the sport. 

And the familiar Brooklyn bum was an image drawn from the hearts of the Dodgers’ long suffering fans, as Bock recounts the tale.

In the ‘30s, Mullin first represented the consistently inept Dodgers with the figure of a clown. Then one day after he attended a game at Ebbets Field, a Brooklyn cabbie asked him, “So how did our bums do today?”

“A little light went on,” Bock said. “And that’s when the bum got started.”

Bock points to Mullin’s attention to detail with that character, always dressed in a tattered Dodger blue coat with matching patches on the elbows and the knees of his white and blue pin-striped pants when he was reproduced in full color. The unshaven bum usually clenched a stogie in his teeth and Bock said the bum’s round face with large dark eyes gave Mullin a palate for a range of expressions.

The Dodgers commissioned the image for the team’s yearbook covers through the 1950s – including the yearbook cover for the historic 1955 season when they finally vanquished the Yankees in the World Series. 

Mullin eventually rendered 2,000 different version of that image, including a hilarious cover for the Major League Baseball’s official 1960 guide after the team won the world championship again after moving to Los Angeles. It showed the Brooklyn bum staring at his gaudy Hollywood counterpart – still a bum with mismatching blue checkered coat and red Hawaiian shirt – and asking, “Usen’t yoused to live in Brooklyn?”

Mullin also produced yearbook covers for the Giants and the New York Mets, using his grandson as the model for the baby Met image he used for the team character when the Mets were born in 1962.

“When I think of the greatest boxer, I think of Ray Robinson. When I think of the perfect artist, I think of Willard Mullin,” the late New York Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo wrote in an introduction he wrote for the book before he died in 2011.

The book has been in development for more than a decade, according to Bock, who said he couldn’t find a publisher when he first floated the idea more than a decade ago. In 2006, his agent made the connection with Seattle-based Fantographics and the project slowly went forward, as Bock encountered challenges in locating Mullin’s original cartoons.

“They’re all over the place. Mullins’ cartoons are everywhere, so part of the thing was gathering the material,” said Bock, who co-edited the book with Mullin’s estate attorney Michael Powers.

Much of Mullins’ work was donated to the archives of Syracuse University, according to Bock, who said he also located some material through exhibitions at the National Art Museum of Indianapolis and the Yogi Berra Museum in New Jersey.

Mullin’s daughter, Shirley Mullin Rhodes, contributed a piece of her remembrances of her father for the book. She watched her father work when she was growing up in the studio at their Manhasset home. Mullin frequently sent his drawings to the World Telegram by bringing them to the Manhasset train station and paying a conductor $3 to deliver them to a messenger who would pick them up in Pennsylvania Station and bring them to the paper’s sports editor.

Mullin was acclaimed as the greatest sports cartoonist of the century after he retired in 1973, Bock said. He was comfortable with that recognition, but harbored no inflated self-image. When someone once called him an artist, Bock said Mullin replied, “I am not an artist. I am a cartoonist.”

But his contribution to baseball lore went beyond his drawings. 

Bock said Mullin created some of baseball’s most memorable catch-phrases, including “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” when the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson famously beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ninth inning of a playoff game to decide the 1952 pennant race. Mullin also coined the phrase for the Giants’ triumph, known as “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff” – a reference to the Polo Grounds’ locale. He also coined the phrase “subway series,” used to denote the epic World Series battles between the Dodgers and the Yankees in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“He was a regular guy. He wasn’t one of those geniuses who had to be lost in thought. Stuff came to him,” Bock said.

Bock said Mullin also nicknamed Yankees legend Lou Gehrig “the Iron Horse” and drew a poignant cartoon after Gehrig’s emotional retirement speech at Yankee Stadium. That drawing showed Gehrig crossing home plate with the simple headline, “Scoring.”

Bock said Mullin is best remembered for his whimsical style in the comical characters he portrayed in approximately 10,000 cartoons over his career. He kept original copies in a closet at the World Telegram and invited colleagues to take them.

“If you had to sum up Mullin, he had a lot of fun,” Bock said.

Baseball fans seeking a graphic dose of nostalgia or those seeking an introduction to the work of Willard Mullin can pre-order discounted copies of Bock’s book about the legendary cartoonist on Amazon.com

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