Monday, February 16, 2009
News of Yore 1952: Catching Up with the Hillbilly Slugger
By Erwin Knoll (E&P, 4/19/52)
"Play ball!" was the cry across the country this week, and among the bleacher idols getting back to work was the redoubtable Ike McBatt, better known to his many fans as "Ozark Ike."
It's been a long winter for Mr. McBatt, as it must be to any star ballplayer. H e dabbled in football and basketball, of course, and found time for an occasional romantic interlude with his perennial sweetheart, Dinah Fatfield. But his first love is the leather apple, and he and his fans must have been glad to see another baseball season launched.
Mr. McBatt, of course, is the creation of Ray Gotto, and the hero of the first successful baseball comic strip (the only baseball strip around now too, we think.) His often startling feats of athletic prowess are followed by readers of about 250 newspapers.
Mr. Gotto, who started "Ozark Ike" for King Features Syndicate over six years ago, is making noises like a major-league manager these days, predicting a big season for his star. He is also burying himself again in baseball record books and regulations, looking for those improbable but never impossible "fluke plays" that keep "Ozark Ike" readers guessing from day to day and
game to game.
"The accent in 'Ozark Ike'," Mr. Gotto says, "is not on what happens but on how it happens. Readers know that the hero will win all or most of the games. It's important to keep their attention focused on how he does it."
Mr. Gotto grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and claims to have played ball on every sandlot in that city. His weight—only 145— kept him out of professional baseball and he turned to his second love, cartooning. Though his formal art education consisted only of a correspondence course and some night classes at Nashville's Advertising Art School, he landed a job on the Nashville Banner's art staff after a brief free-lance stint. Here he did sports and editorial cartoons and advertising layouts.
In the early '40s Mr. Gotto decided to try his hand at a comic strip, and started working out a story line. "I assumed that there would probably be an increase in sports interest after the war," he says. "There usually is. Anyhow, sports was the only thing I knew very much about. I only went through high school in Nashville, and that by the hardest." "Ozark Ike" was just beginning to take shape when the Navy drafted the cartoonist in 1943.
While doing animations for the Naval Photographic Science Laboratory in Washington, Mr. Gotto found time to draw the first few sequences of "Ozark Ike." Shortly before the war's end he took them to King Features in New York. Syndicate editors liked the strip, but doubted whether a baseball story would appeal to female readers. A spot survey of secretaries and stenographers in the KFS offices proved that it would, and when the late Damon Runyon said he liked "Ike," the deal was clinched.
In the strip's early months, much emphasis was placed on the hillbilly setting and a desperate feud between the Fatfields and the McBatts. Since then, however, and especially since a Sunday page was introduced in 1947, most of the action has revolved around sports and especially baseball.
Mr. Gotto, by the way, unhesitatingly picks Cleveland and Brooklyn for this year's major league pennants. We suppose he's entitled to his opinion, but...
[Note: Ray correctly picked Brooklyn, but they met the Yankees in the World Series, not Cleveland]
Labels: News of Yore