“It’s More Pungent When It’s Done Graphically:” A Conversation With Murray Olderman, The Dean Of American Sports Cartoonists

Sports cartoons were once a staple on American sports pages. Fantagraphics' "The Draw Of Sport" brings to life the work of a lost art's grand master.

Sports cartooning has a storied history that parallels the rise of print media in the late 19th century. In the days before photography came to dominate visual imagery in magazines and newspapers, publishers like Hearst and Pulitzer employed cartoonists to decorate their newspapers’ sports pages and break up otherwise monolithic blocks of descriptive type. Sports cartoons were the signature content innovation of the mutton-chop era. No one even thought to call it a pivot.

Thomas Aloysius “Tad” Dorgan was an early master of the form, initially with the San Francisco Chronicle and then with the New York Journal. Dorgan was a phrasemaker who created or popularized “hot dog,” “ball and chain,” and “yes, we have no bananas.” The stylings of his “Indoor Sports” cartoon influenced the work of his good pal George Herriman, who dabbled in sports before going on to create the Krazy Kat strip. Other practitioners who dipped their pens in sports cartooning included Bud Fisher (of Mutt and Jeff fame), Johnny Gruelle (Raggedly Ann and Andy), Robert Ripley (Believe It or Not), Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), and Rube Goldberg (the contraption guy).

The craft entered its golden age in the 1930s, with cartoonists now offering humorous and sometimes even biting morsels of commentary. In New York City, Willard Mullin delighted readers of the World-Telegram newspaper with his hobo-esque “Brooklyn Bum” character, while the renderings of Burris Jenkins (Journal-American), Bob Edgren (Evening World), and Leo O’Melia (Daily News)—and especially O’Melia’s successor, the incomparable Bill Gallo—were equally popular. Other prominent cartoonists of the time included Karl Hubenthal (Los Angeles Examiner), Lou Darvas (Cleveland Press), Gene Mack (Boston Globe), and Howard Brodie (San Francisco Chronicle). Their work reached a national audience in The Sporting News.

In the words of New York Times staff writer Richard Sandomir, these cartoonists “blended the skills of a caricaturist and the mind-set 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 disappeared, first slowly and then suddenly, from the media landscape around the turn of the millennium. As with so many other things to disappear from sports sections, they were the victims of changing tastes and publishing economics. Today, no sports cartoonist appears regularly in a major daily newspaper; the black-and-white remnants of this once powerful and uniquely creative profession exist primarily as collectibles bought and sold on eBay.

The last living artisan from this vanquished species is Murray Olderman. He drew his first cartoon as a professional in 1947, for the Sacramento Bee, then joined the Minneapolis Star. In 1952, he moved to New York to work for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), a Scripps-Howard syndicate. He covered every major event—Super Bowls, World Series, Final Fours, heavyweight championship fights—and sketched every prominent athlete and personality in the second half of the twentieth century, from Jim Brown and John Wooden to Howard Cosell and Pancho Gonzalez.

What differentiated Olderman from his contemporaries was that he was also a writer. He wrote or co-wrote sixteen books, including Just Win, Baby: The Al Davis StoryStarr: My Life in Football, and an entertaining memoir entitled Mingling With Lions. His artwork is displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. He also drew the small action cartoons on the back of Topps baseball cards during the 1950s. He is a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the National Sportswriters Hall of Fame, and he is still kicking hard at 95 years of age.

Earlier this year, the ace comics publishing house Fantagraphics published a collection of his artwork entitled The Draw of Sport. Draw features more than 100 illustrations, culled from an estimated 6,000 cartoons that Olderman produced during his career, along with his personal remembrances of those moments. The book follows on the heels of Willard Mullin’s Golden Era of Baseball: Drawings 1934-1972, published in 2013, in a notable effort by the Seattle-based publisher to spotlight the neglected and forgotten artistry of sports cartoons.

Olderman is a widower, and lives in a retirement community in Rancho Mirage, California. He suffered a stroke a few years ago, but he was eager to talk over the phone about sports cartooning, his career, and his new book.

When did you first get interested in drawing?

I used to doodle in class when I was a schoolboy. It was mostly stuff about sports.

How popular were sports cartoons at that time?

I grew up in a village called Spring Valley in Rockland County, about 30 miles from New York City. There were twelve newspapers in the New York area where I lived, and ten of them had sports cartoonists.

Who were the sports cartoonists that you most admired when you were growing up?

Well, there was Willard Mullin and Burris Jenkins. Jenkins was in the Journal-American and Mullin, who was really the king of cartoonists, was in the World-Telegram. Their work was featured front and center on the sports pages. They got a lot of space and their cartoons were punchy and full of action. They were very attractive attention-getters. They struck your eye better than cliché photo of guys sliding into second base.

Was there anybody’s style that you emulated?

I used to try to imitate Mullin’s style, but I tried to develop my own talent. See, overall my interest was journalism. I was writing a weekly column for the county newspaper when I was in high school, and I studied journalism at the University of Missouri and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

What were the tools of the trade that you used for drawing cartoons?

Those were all things that I had to learn. When I was in college, I contacted the eminent cartoonists and solicited technical advice from them on what paper to use, what pens to use, what brushes to use. And, technique: each one had a different technique.

In those days, you did line drawings for newspapers because they were more reliable than halftones [a process commonly used for photographs]. The best way was to use coquille board and Ross board: these were papers with special grains that had a beveled surface. When you shot it, the camera only picked up the black areas, so there was a lot more contrast than halftones. It was more pleasing to the eye. You wanted a good reproduction before you transmitted it to the other newspapers in the syndicate.

Did you use pen or pencil?

I used all different instruments depending on what I was working on. I used a Prismacolor black crayon pencil, because it didn’t smudge too much, and a Gillott pen, dipped in India ink, and I learned to vary the intensity of the strokes. For really delicate black lines, I eventually learned to master the use of feather brushes. I used Winsor Newton Series 7 sable brushes. I used pen and ink for the lettering, if there was any lettering. As my work evolved, I used less text in the cartoons.

What was your process to create a cartoon?

You sit down at the drawing board with a piece of paper and you doodle and try to get ideas. The ideas are the real crux of cartooning. A lot of guys can draw with great success but they’re not good idea people. You try to impart some originality to your work, resembling editorial cartoons, where you make up the whole cartoon and make a statement.

I’ll give you an example. One day I was trying to figure out a way to show how the Yankees were such a dominant team. They would pick up guys like [first baseman] Johnny Mize, and he would have a resurgence of his career. So, I sat there and started with the interlocking NY logo, and then drew a bunch of vertical lines to resemble their uniform pinstripes. Then the idea just hit me: I put a noose at the end of each line and inside each noose I put the other teams of the American League. The caption was: “It’s the uniform that does it.”

What about when you drew a portrait of an athlete: How did you approach that?

I used photographs when I did caricatures of individual athletes. Acme Photos was part of the Scripps-Howard syndicate, so I had access to their photo library. In those days, you magnified athletes. You did portraits that weren’t very critical. As time went along, you tried to develop an editorial slant to your cartoons. You made a commentary, like a sports columnist does. But it’s more pungent when it’s done graphically.

How were the cartoons distributed to the newspapers in the syndicate?

All our stuff was mailed. In those days they would send out mats. These were cardboard impressions of the drawings. We had between 650 and 750 newspaper clients all over the country in the feature service, and you would mail them the mats of the drawings. They would transform them to be used for their printing presses. It’s much easier today, of course, with computers.

So, you weren’t on a daily deadline?

I very seldom drew on a deadline. I did a couple of times for fights and so forth. Mostly I worked in an office in New York. We had our own mechanical room. You sketched out your idea on paper first, then you made a regular drawing. You had to be aware of the time element. You had to be conscious of the fact that the cartoon wouldn’t appear [in the other newspapers of the syndicate] until two or three days later. Whereas cartoonists like Mullin, who drew for a daily, could sit in his office and if something happened he could draw an immediate cartoon and get it into the next edition of the newspaper.

What was your workload like?

I did about three cartoons a week, and I was writing three to five sports columns a week. There were a lot of guys who could draw, and there were a lot of guys who could write. There were very few guys who were double threats, who could write and draw. Bill Gallo did some writing, and there was a guy named Bob Bowie, who worked for the Denver Post and was both a cartoonist and a writer. A lot of the sports cartoonists, including Mullin, they had to have their stuff checked out because they didn’t spell too well. I was a good speller.

Did you ever work in color?

Yes I did, especially after I retired. I developed a side business doing program covers for colleges for their football programs. I did a lot of work in color for magazines, mostly sports.

You covered every sport, but you’re most connected to pro football. How did that happen?

I worked in Sacramento and Minneapolis before I came to work in New York. I came to New York in 1952, just as pro football was starting to expand and increase in popularity. I was among the first to catch onto it.

You are credited with originating the Jim Thorpe Award, presented to the Most Valuable Player of the NFL. How did that come about?

Baseball always had MVPs. [Baseball’s modern MVP award was first handed out in 1931.] In the 1950s, they weren’t picking MVPs for pro basketball or pro football. At the time, I was always prowling for new ideas, and I realized that we could start this through the NEA syndicate. So, I originated both of them. [The NEA version of the MVP award for pro football was awarded from 1955-2008. The NBA has awarded its MVP award since the 1955-56 season; the winner receives the Maurice Podoloff trophy.]

Sounds like you were quite busy.

Well, I was young.

Why do you think sports cartoons have virtually disappeared today?

There was a transition in the newspaper business with the advent of television. In my day, most of the sports cartoons were in the afternoon newspapers, like the World-Telegram and the Journal-American and the New York Post. Very few morning newspapers had sports cartoons. The afternoon newspapers had a lot of space for sports cartoons. With the advent of television, the afternoon newspapers started to drop out because people went home and started watching the TV news. So, that contributed to the decline. And then, you had the advent of color photography. A lot of sports editors gravitated to color photographs. They aren’t cartoon-inclined and about to pay for a full-time cartoonist on staff.

Do you think publications today, whether in print or online, should make space for sports cartoonists?

I certainly do. I don’t think there’s one paper in the United States that has a full-time sports cartoonist on staff, although some of the editorial cartoonists will sometimes draw something about sports. Just think about all the developments today that beg for expressive cartoon reaction and comment in the 24-hour news cycle, from steroids and Olympic scandals and the controversy over the National Anthem and so on.

How about yourself: Do you still draw and/or write these days?

I had a stroke about two years ago. I recovered pretty well. I need a little help walking. But I haven’t written or drawn much since then. I’m not really motivated.

But your book came out earlier this year, so that must’ve taken some doing.

I kept a big pile of the work I did over the years. I learned since my retirement how to use a computer and upload my drawings onto the computer and graphically improve them.  I went through and picked out 130 cartoons and combined that with text about my personal interactions with the leading sports personalities. It was pretty much completed before I had my stroke.