The Bookshelf interview: Ronnie Joyner

August 13, 2012 · 0 comments

Ronnie Joyner is the author/artist of Hardball Legends and Journeymen and Short-Timers: 333 Illustrated Baseball Biographies, published earlier this year by McFarland. It’s a throw-back to a time when newspapers regularly ran drawings of athletes with a few factoids. Joyner was kind enough to quench my curiosity about the craft.

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Bookshelf: For context, how old are you? I ask this because if you’re “of a certain age,” you would probably remember when cartoons like this would appear in newspapers. If, on the other hand, you are younger, what is it about the genre that appeals to you?

Ronnie Joyner (Photo by Reid Silverman, somdnews.com)

Joyner: I was born in 1963 in Washington, DC. Newspaper sports “cartooning,” or whatever you want to call it, was already in serious decline by that point. The growth of television in the 1950s seems to have been the catalyst for
the decline of newspaper sports artists. Competition from TV was causing a sharp drop in newspaper readership all over the country, so editors found less reason to employ a sports artist when they were stressing over their bottom line.

By the time I began drawing my bio-illustrations (that’s the term I use to describe my illustrations) for publication in various small magazines/newsletters in 1997, sports cartooning was almost completely dead except for maybe Bill Gallo of the New York Daily News. He was still doing regular sports cartoons, but they were more of an editorial style than the art that appeared in the sports pages in the pre-1960 golden age of the genre. So I did not come to love this form of art by seeing it in real time as I grew up. I saw it here and there in baseball books that I read.

Being a “baseball guy” –  meaning I played and loved the game from my earliest memory, and also being an wanna-be artist from the time I could hold a crayon — I was naturally captivated by these old sports cartoons. They were unlike anything that was going on in my lifetime. These old guys could really draw. Beautiful portraits, killer compositions, top-notch cartoons, and interesting/funny text turned me into a fan right from the start. Plus, the players depicted in these old drawings were naturally guys from the past since no one was doing this art during my youth, and that really appealed to me because I was already turning into a baseball historian even when I was a kid.

My favorite player growing up was Brooks Robinson, but I loved learning about guys that came before him and these old drawings taught me a lot about them.

Bookshelf: Who were your influences? Aside from newspaper cartoonists, are there any artists who specialize in baseball that particularly appeal to you?

Joyner: There are so many guys that drew specifically in this genre that influenced me. It’s hard to fathom how many guys were creating this type of artwork in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Every newspaper had an artist, and some cities had multiple newspapers. So there are countless newspaper sports artists whose work I’ve seen and incorporated into my style. But  the guys who really influenced me are the big names in the genre — Thomas “Pap” Paprocki, Lou Darvas, and Willard Mullin. One now-obscure name who drew a lot in the 1930s was a guy I liked a lot — Phil Berube. I happened to stumble on his work in the 1980s while I was in Cooperstown, and it really impressed me.

As for other baseball artists,  non-newspaper varieties, who I really like, there are two working now who I think are great — Arthur Miller and Andy Jurinko. Miller’s work is super-realistic, but still has an illustrated quality to it. It’s really cool to see his paintings of  players from the teens and twenties because you rarely see those guys depicted in color, and Miller’s art really gives you the feel of what it would have looked like to see those players in living color. Jurinko’s paintings are realistic, but they have a posterized style to them that set them apart from the photo-realistic stuff. Of course, for the best photo-realistic work you’ll ever see, just check out Ron Stark’s work. He’s definitely channeling the great Rockwell. It’s amazing stuff.

Bookshelf: How did you go about picking the non-stars? Was there a specific event in their career that had a special meaning for you, or that you felt deserved attention?

Joyner: My method for picking which “non-stars” to illustrate is not too exciting, but it’s effective — I read a lot of baseball books. I’ve probably read one baseball book every month for the last 25 years, and it’s in those books that I learn about the journeymen and short-timers who make up the bulk of each club’s rosters. These are the guys that often get left out of the more mainstream baseball histories out there, yet their stories are often just as intriguing as the stories of the superstars. I might be reading a book about a legend like Mickey Mantle, but it’s the story of Eli Grba within the Mantle book that inspires me to illustrate Grba.

It was while reading a book on Babe Ruth that I learned of Len Koenecke, a Dodger player murdered by the pilots of a charter plane he’d hired shortly after his release from the club in September of 1935. I decided to look up the career of Pirates catcher Clyde McCullough after reading actress Liz Sheridan’s (Jerry Seinfeld’s TV mom) autobiographical book, Dizzy & Jimmy, in which she told how she and her boyfriend, James Dean, hitch-hiked a ride with a kind stranger from Pennsylvania to Indiana. The stranger turned out to be McCullough, which thrilled Dean who was a baseball fan. When  you’re in my shoes, you never know where inspiration will come from.

Bookshelf: Which came more easily: the artistic rendering or the research for the biography?

Joyner: As hard as this may be to believe, drawing my bio-llustrations is easier for me than researching the biographical text. I’ve been drawing my entire life, but I’ve only been doing serious baseball research since the mid-90s, so the illustration comes more naturally to me. Plus, it’s tough to try and boil a guy’s entire career down to 500 words.

Bookshelf: The cartoons are pretty dense with information; in comparison, the backs of old baseball cards carried just a fact or two. Is there a “danger” in offering too much?

Joyner: It’s true that my bio-illustrations include a significant amount of text. Whether they’re too text heavy or not depends on the individual reader. The reader that approaches my bio-illustrations with a baseball card mindset, meaning he’s looking for short blurbs of text, then he might find my work too text heavy. The reader that approaches my bio-illustrations looking for an exhaustive biography might find my work lacking. I decided to try and be in the middle of these two approached when I settled on my format.  Hopefully, the cool artwork will inspire those who like less text to read more than they usually would, in addition to nudging those who like fuller biographies to pay attention. A happy medium.

Bookshelf: What about the fact that all the text is in upper case? Do you think that makes it easier or more difficult for your readers?

Joyner: Many of my old design teachers and the art directors I’ve worked under preached that using all upper case letters made text hard to read. I always differed in that opinion. I never really felt it made text hard to read. Using all upper case might make a text layout unattractive in its design, but I never had a hard time reading anything written in all caps. In traditional graphic layout, things like brochures, posters, magazines, etc., I would agree that one would generally not want to use all caps. But my bio-illustrations are not traditional graphic layouts; [they] are inspired by comic book layouts.

I grew up reading Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and Silver Surfer, and it was the text approach in those, and most all comics, that led me to use all upper case in my text. I like the way it looked in those old comic books, so if it was good enough for those guys, it was good enough for me. My comic book leanings have led to one of the rare criticisms I occasionally get about my art — too many exclamation points. I have no idea why they chose to do it, but old  comic books seemed to use an exclamation point after every sentence regardless of whether the character was speaking to someone in a library or hollering at a super-villain during a fight to the death. So I decided to employ the exclamation point in the same way in my work. I don’t think most readers of my work get it, though, and I have received the occasional question about it. Because of this I’ve gotten away from my exclamation point approach for the last couple years because I don’t want it to be a distraction. Enough said!

Bookshelf: Any plans for a second book?

Joyner: I definitely plan to do a second bio-illustration book. It should be ready in… 2037! Sadly, my productivity in bio-illustrations has gone down as I’ve changed jobs over the last three years. I had the same job for 25 years, and that allowed me to be very productive with my bio-illustrations, producing about 330 from 1997 to 2011. But after 25 years at the same job, I’ve now had two new jobs in the last two years. I have so much time wrapped up in commuting with my new job that my bio-illustration production has been cut in half. I’m averaging just one drawing every two months, but  who knows — maybe things will change and I can soon get back to ramming speed.

My “real” job since I graduated college way back in 1987 (University of Maryland) is graphic artist. Basic corporate layout and design. Stuff like brochures, ads, newsletters, magazines, posters, etc. I worked with the same company for 23 years, then moved on in 2011. I’ve spent this year working in the U.S. Senate graphics department in Washington DC. So, no, there’s really no connection between my “real” job and my baseball art. I was excited at the chance to meet Kentucky Senator and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning when I realized I’d be heading to the Senate, but then I remembered that he’d recently retired. So I decided to do a bio-illustration of him, but it came too late to make it into my book. Volume 2 look out!

Bookshelf: Do you have a favorite portrait?

Joyner: It’s tough to pick a favorite portrait. If I was to choose from simply an artistic point of view, I’d pick portraits that are different in some way. I like the Pete Rose because of the rarely-used side angle. I like the Lon Warneke because he has a face that could have only come from the Great Depression. Plus I enjoyed illustrating the greased-up  ompadour peeking out from under his cap. I like the Willie Mays portrait, too, because of the big smile he has on his face. It’s classic Mays. I favor some others because of their amazing storylines, like Billy Southworth Jr., Lee Maye, and Eddie Waitkus.

Bookshelf: Have you shared any of the illustrations with the subjects and if so, what were their reactions?

Joyner: I have shared my finished bio-illustrations with many players, with mixed reactions. Many guys have been the focus of attention for so long that there’s no way to impress them, so my little old bio-illustrations have little effect on them. Others go crazy for them. A few of the most enthusiastic guys were Ken Retzer, Spook Jacobs, Don Gutteridge, Red Borom and, amazingly, Charlie Sheen. But to be honest, I’ve probably only sent finished drawings to about ten percent of the players I’ve illustrated.

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