Sometimes, we mourn a man. But how, in heaven’s name, do we mourn the stark and resonant end of an era?
Babe Ruth. Mickey Mantle. Joe Louis and Joe Namath. Some sports figures become symbols of their athletic generation, so woven are they into the national fabric. As a sports cartoonist and columnist, BILL GALLO was a journalistic symbol for the generations. And for 70 years as a cartoonist, more than a half-century in the sports department of the New York Daily News, he was the one helping to stitch that fabric.
How do you mourn the man who was the Joe DiMaggio of your profession — let alone one who was as likely as the Yankee Clipper to be toasted at the famed Toots Shors? Joe-D’s enshrined hitting streak reached 56 games. Bill-G’s winning streak at the drawing board stretched decades.
A couple of pennants, rings or Madison Square Garden knockouts can put you on the fast path toward becoming a New York institution. Gallo did it how journalists must: By showing up every day for year upon year, becoming a civic celebrity at a time when being the Daily News sports cartoonist meant he had both the best view and the best spotlight in the house.
And everyone who read the Daily News’s sports section was guaranteed the best ringside seat.
How do you mourn the man who was your profession’s Vin Scully — so rock-solid reliable that his seasonal rhythms and observations and idiosyncracies became as comforting and welcome as lush left-field grass on a summer day?
Basement Bertha. Yuchie. General Von Steingrabber. Bill Gallo was a character who gifted us with characters rendered in bold lines, speaking in the bald truth of a fan’s passion before so much cartoon humor became battered in arch sarcasm.
How do you mourn the man who was the Herblock of sports artistry — a reminder of the former preeminence of print newspapers and their high-profile cartoonists? In the adapted baseball film “The Natural,” Robert Duvall’s old-timey sports reporter draws a cartoon of Robert Redford’s mytho-heroic Roy Hobbs adorned in goat horns — the simple graphic language that says it all. But even then, upon the film’s release in the ’80s, the role of the sports cartoonist seemed like a warmly nostalgic throwback.
Bill Gallo was a living connection to a time when the power of ink hadn’t been gradually eclipsed by the power of the pixel.
By the time I became a newspaper sports cartoonist in the ’90s, it felt like joining a creative colony of Shakers. We took pride in craftsmanship. We valued the old ways. And mostly, it felt like gaining membership into a rapidly vanishing breed.
Yet even from Southern California at the time, I could always look to the stalwart Gallo for inspiration. As I cast my gaze eastward, Bill Gallo was my true-North.
It was somehow only fitting, though, that I finally met a professional heavyweight like Gallo in Jersey.
A year ago this month, at the National Cartoonists Society’s Reubens Awards, a couple of sports-lovers got to talk shop. How do you say “thank you” to a legend who immediately makes you feel like a peer?
Gallo also recounted for the crowd of cartoonists how once upon a time, a half-century and a world ago, he could personally call up a star like Pearl Bailey and she’d actually want to come to rub elbows with a gathering of tuxedoed but still ink-stained wretches at an NCS event.
Gallo shared some of his glory-day reminiscences with me, and as lively and engaging and eternally boyish as he was, I felt already then that I was mourning an era I could no longer visit. I could only, happily and gratefully, shake its hand.
The hand that brought a fan’s joys and frustrations and communion to millions of readers.
A couple of weeks after meeting Gallo, I spotted a sports-themed cartoon at Nationals Park; the century-old artwork referenced the presidential run of Teddy Roosevelt. After talking to Ken Burns (aka America’s documentarian) — who threw out the first pitch at that game — I wrote him an open letter encouraging that he make a film about one American institution he hasn’t yet touched: newspaper cartooning. The letter said in part:
“ There are some longtime cartoon legends who till walk, and talk, colorfully among us. ... Sports cartoonist Bill Gallo, whose historic tenure at the New York Daily News stretches back to World War II; George Booth, a longtime cartooning icon at The New Yorker; and Mort Walker, whose strip “Beetle Bailey” is the last newspaper comic approved personally some 60 years ago by publisher William Randolph Hearst. All three cartoonists had so much boyish glee in their eyes [when I met them recently], who knows -- they might outlive both Ken Burns and myself. But the larger reality is, they represent a generation of near-nonagenarians (one that includes “Family Circus’s” Bil Keane, and the 80something Mell Lazarus, among numerous others) who have great stories to share now.
“ I’ve had the pleasure to talk with another near-nonagenarian legend, Stan Lee numerous times in the past year, and every time, I wish I could turn on a camera and capture his great and marvelous stories for future generations to appreciate on film. ”
(Update: Speaking of archiving the greats, ESPN has just posted several audio clips of Gallo discussing how he got his job; his inspiration for General Von Steingrabber; and of drawing poignantly about the sudden death of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson.)
Bill Gallo — who was born on the same day and year and island as fellow cartooning legend Stan Lee (Dec. 28, 1922 in Manhattan) — died of pneumonia Tuesday night at White Plains Hospital, according to the Daily News.
How do you mourn the end of a cartooning era? Well, you share memories with the few fellow Shakers who still practice your shared profession. You pine some for a time when sports cartooning was celebrated.
And mostly, you revisit the man’s lifetime of inspired work and smile anew.
RIP, Mr. Gallo. A profession turns its lonely eyes to you.
MORE: A gallery of Gallo’s best.