Willard Mullin, born of Quaker parents on a farm in Ohio, grew up in Los Angeles. There he went directly from high school in 1920 to learn lettering in a shop that made signs for a department store. He got his first newspaper job doing illustrations for the Los Angeles Herald and soon after turned to sports.
In 1934, he came East to join the New York World Telegram and began turning out six drawings a week—large ones, running over four or five of the page’s eight columns. Sometimes drawing a cartoon came easy for Mullin. Sometimes they came hard. He spent 12 hours laboring over the drawing board saluting Omaha’s victory in the 1935 Kentucky Derby.
Using a hard pencil, Mullin would sketch out his cartoon idea with images, words, and balloons. He would take from three to four hours to complete a cartoon. The finished work was typically done in pen and ink and conte crayon on 16 x 20-inch coquille board. His unique signature could be also be considered a work of art and is comprised of 26 primarily vertical pen slashes. Mullin had a flair that few could match.
He worked either at a desk in the sports department overlooking the West Side Highway at the WorldTelegram building on Barclay Street, or at his home in Plandome, Long Island. It was Mullin’s custom to walk 100 yards to the Plandome station and hand a newly finished cartoon to a Long Island Railroad conductor, who then passed it along to a messenger at Penn Station to take to the paper. Mullin called that system “my pony express.”
His Brooklyn Bum, depicting the Dodgers, was a classic. The disheveled individual was a 1937 creation spawned by the comment of a cab driver. Mullin hopped into a cab at Ebbets Field one day and the cab driver inquired: “Well, what’d dem bums do today?” That set the Mullin mind in motion. The “Brooklyn Bum,” the personification of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, was based on circus clown Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willie” hobo persona.
Mullin’s career spanned a legendary era in New York sports history, and his images of the great New York teams are iconic: Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants and Mets. The New York Giants were always portrayed as something like amiable, hulking boobs. The Cardinals looked like riverboat gamblers, and the Boston Braves looked, well, like Braves, except when they moved to Milwaukee. When the Braves hit the beer city, their beer bellies grew and grew. The Yankees always remained as towering figures, clinical professionals adorned in pinstripes.
Willard Mullin was described by his peers as the best of all sports cartoonists. Red Smith, the New York Times sports columnist, said of him: “Willard had a marvelously comic pen. He was, by far, the most original of the sports cartoonists.” Mullin was five times voted the best sports cartoonist by his peers, and The National Cartoonist Society cited Mullin in 1971 as “The Sports Cartoonist of the Century.”
The prolific Mullin turned out more than 10,000 sports cartoons during his long career with the New York WorldTelegram and Sun. After the New York World-Telegram folded in 1966, Mullin wasn’t through. He worked for The Sporting News, Shell Oil Co., life insurance firms, and others. Several of his efforts are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and 300 are in the library at Syracuse University.