COLUMBIA — Starting in the era of long-sleeved football jerseys and 25-cent hot dogs, Murray Olderman spent his days hanging around big league athletes, writing stories and transforming the players into cartoon versions of themselves for newspapers and card decks.
Olderman's professional career as a sports cartoonist and journalist began in 1947 after his time as an intelligence officer in World War II. He started off as a rookie in 1941, when he published his first illustration in the Columbia Missourian as a journalism student in his junior year at MU. The drawing depicted Bob Steuber, a halfback on the Missouri football team.
"In my day, sports cartoonists were flourishing in newspapers," Olderman said in a phone conversation from his home in California.
As a kid, Olderman, now 95, said he used to flip straight to the sports section in the New York papers. When he began drawing, he started by copying his favorite cartoonists to learn to imitate their artistic styles.
"My work initially was rudimentary," Olderman said. "But over time, I developed my own approach."
Eric Reynolds, his publisher, said Olderman's style has always been very professional.
"That's the first word that comes to mind," Reynolds said. "As Murray will tell you, he wasn't the most naturally gifted cartoonist, per se. But through sheer practice and force of will, he became a damn fine cartoonist."
At the start of his professional career, Olderman admits to feeling a little star-struck. But as time went on and he gained experience interviewing prominent athletes, he started to see them more as regular people and "got to know them as personalities."
He used famous boxer Muhammad Ali as an example and said, "To me, he's not an American icon."
Olderman often spent time getting to know the athletes he interviewed over tennis matches or other activities and said he still stays in touch with football standouts Ron Mix and Fran Tarkenton, even though Olderman's retired now.
"I not only knew them, but I drew them," he said.
Olderman said it was easier back then to casually get to know the athletes.
"It was a different era," he said. "You didn't have to go through the guys' agents."
Olderman said sports cartoons used to mostly be featured in afternoon newspapers, but the age of cartoons began to strike out as TV became more popular and many artists were sacked.
"When television came in, the afternoon newspapers started to go out of business," Olderman said.
Now sports editors usually prefer color photographs of players, Olderman said. But there are some things that cartoons capture that photos cannot portray.
"You can deliver a point of view with some pungency and graphic qualities," Olderman said.
Reynolds said Olderman's style has changed throughout the years to adapt with the time but also with his subjects.
"That lovely black-and-white Conté crayon work of the '40s and into the '60s that was a familiar sight in most newspapers of the era became obsolete as color printing and photography grew more prominent," Reynolds said. "It's impressive how much Murray adapted to the times he was working in, whether as a reporter, an illustrator, a cartoonist or editor."
Olderman has written several books throughout his career, and his newest book, "The Draw of Sport," compiles 130 profiles of sports personalities with short stories and memories of Olderman's experience meeting them. Among the athletes selected for the book are Jackie Robinson, Yogi Berra, O.J. Simpson, Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and many more.
Reynolds said he has enjoyed working with Olderman to publish his books, though the two have never actually met in person.
"I wasn't familiar with him or his work but was immediately struck by the sheer scope and quality of it. He really has seen just about everything," Reynolds said. "His book is a treasure-trove of first-person accounts of many of the biggest personalities and events in 20th-century American sports. There aren't many folks in the world who have lived a life as full as Murray."
Olderman has been inducted into five halls of fame and created roughly 6,000 cartoons during a career that spanned more than 60 years, with 15-20 illustrations for the Missourian. He also wrote for "ShowMe," a college humor magazine at MU, and worked there at the same time as another iconic grad, Mort Walker, the cartoonist for the comic "Beetle Bailey."
"There were a lot of guys who could write, and there are a lot of guys who could draw," Olderman said, "but very few who could do both.”
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