SMJ Interview- Frank Galasso, Sports Cartoonist

In the days when newspapers were king, sports fans took to their local rags to take in all they could about their teams.  There was little to nothing on television, the sports radio format had yet to be pioneered, and the Internet didn’t exist.

During this time fans poured over the game stories, box scores, columnists, and the latest from the on-staff sports cartoonist.  These artists often provided a visual commentary that could be easily understood by all readers.

Today the traditional sports cartoonists have faded away from the lexicon of the newspaper business.  Some still exist, but it is definitely a species that is nearly extinct.

Don’t tell that to Frank Galasso, a Rhode Island native who has developed his own niche in keeping this art form in the spotlight.  We had a chance to speak with Frank about his work and the future of sports cartoonists… 

SMJ: Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in being an artist, specifically, a sports cartoonist?

FG: I grew up in Cranston, RI. I was drawing since I was three. I still have books with my doodles in them. Sports-wise, even as a little boy in Providence, I enjoyed Frank Lanning who was a sports cartoonist at the Providence Journal for something like 46 years. He was probably one of the finest in the country, but people didn’t know much about him because he was in Providence and did not get the recognition as the guys in New York. I used to try to emulate what he did…cut his cartoons out and try to copy what he did, all his layouts. By the time the late ’80’s came around when I was trying to break in, no one was really doing it because the industry was changing. It’s a lot of work. To be a real sports cartoonist, you need three things; there’s being a journalist, a reporter, because you have to do research, find out facts, dig up statistics. You have to be an illustrator to draw up the face of the athlete. Then you have to be a cartoonist to draw the little cartoons to go around it. That’s the traditional old time sports cartoonist. There are some guys around who claim to be a sports cartoonist, but they are either a sports artist, or an editorial guy who do sports topics from time to time. I’m a pure sports cartoonist. It can be a lot of work for nothing. You have to persevere.

My father had a painting company. I would work there during the day and draw at night. Finally in 1997 I was given an opportunity to work for the Providence Journal. I was there 5-6 years. That helped me a lot, working at a top 50 newspaper. It taught me a lot about the business.

SMJ: Did you have any formal training? Did you go to college?

FG: I did go to college. I attended the Community College of Rhode Island. I took some courses at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) for journalism. This is something they don’t teach at school. Especially a sports cartoonist. It’s like being a musician. You can go to school for music, but if you’re not really good at it, they can’t teach you something you can’t learn. You have to develop it. It did evolve for me over the years. I look at the early stuff from 1987 and say “wow, how crude that stuff was back then.” I thought it was great then, but now that I look back at it…wow!

SMJ: Was there anyone else in your family who was also an artist?

FG: Yes, actually my father was a professional musician and also very good at art. He didn’t do much painting or drawing, but he was a great letterer. So he had a hand for it. When I was a little baby he would show me how to do lettering. My mother was pretty artistic herself in different ways…with the house. They were both creative, clever kind of people.

SMJ: Did you ever have a chance to meet Frank Lanning?

FG: No, unfortunately he passed away the year I started in 1987. Years later I did get a chance to speak with his daughter, who was another fantastic artist. She had found out that I was doing this in 2000. I was so worried because my style was so close to Frank. When she found out we spoke and she told me that her father was a big promoter of youth and would have been flattered that someone copied his style. That made me feel a lot better. Some people tried to steer me in a different direction, but my gut said no, I needed to stick to what I know people like.

SMJ: You decided in the early ’90’ to try to syndicate your work. What was your decision to do that? How difficult was that to accomplish?

FG: When I started in 1987, the sports editors were not sure if people wanted it (sports cartoons) anymore. I was steered to do editorial work. In 1992 the Providence Journal hired me freelance to do work for their editorial page. By 1996 I was talking with a syndicate asking how I can get my work syndicated. He said it was possible if you were willing to do the work. I made a lot of phone calls, put a package together. It was a lot of legwork. I was fortunate. I was told if I was lucky I’d get twenty percent response. I called less than fifty papers and got around thirty. I sent out a lot of faxes. And it worked.

SMJ: People say that sports cartoonists are a dying breed. Do you agree?

FG: Sports cartooning isn’t really dying, it’s actually being revived, by myself and others. People always wanted it. It was the papers’ decision to go in a different direction. Now they’re coming back. The reason why you don’t see a lot of people doing it is again, the hard work, the amount of time it takes to break through, you don’t make a lot of money at first.

SMJ: You did some work in New York where renowned sports cartoonist Bill Gallo still works for the Daily News. Have you ever met Bill?

FG: Oh yes. I met him at the boxing Hall of Fame in, I think, 2001. He was inducted because of all the cartoons he did on boxers.

SMJ: In a piece on the YES Network Bill Gallo said that you have a lot of potential. Can you tell us what he told you personally about your work?

FG: Bill doesn’t say much. It wasn’t his style to show emotion or anything. Bill was very gracious to me, telling me to keep it going.

SMJ: Were there any other people you looked up to in the business?

FG: There was an artist from the (Boston)Globe called Gene Mack. He used to do pieces on ball parks. In recent years I’ve become a fan of Willard Mullin. He was with a smaller paper in New York but was nationally known, doing a lot of covers for the old Yankees Magazine and Brooklyn Dodger programs. He and Frank were probably neck and neck talent-wise. He got the national exposure being in New York.

SMJ: Your work has evolved into the creation and sale of lithographs. What go you started in this field?

FG: You get to a point where you need to take the next step. The next step for me was merchandising. In 1999, three or four things happened at once. The Pawtucket Red Sox asked me to do a piece for the opening of the park that year. A few weeks later the Providecne Bruins won the Calder Cup and they asked me to do a piece for a poster on the Calder Cup season. A few weeks after that I was able to produce a piece for Yogi Berra that I presented to him at Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium.

At the same time I was preparing to do a piece about the old Rhode Island Reds. No one had ever done anything on the Reds in any form. This was my first shot at a merchandising piece. We released it just before Christmas of that year. We reunited about 30 players from the old Red teams. It was so popular that because of that poster the Rhode Island Reds Society was formed. I was a founding member. Today the Society has over 600 members. It was a financial success. And more importantly it reunited many of the old players and fans of the Reds.

SMJ: You’ve also done illustrations of some famous people, Tommy Lasorda, Willard Scott, Lee Smith, and some local legends in Rhode Island. What was it like to produce these pieces and be able to present it to these people?

FG: Tommy Lasorda was the first time I presented a piece for anyone. I was asked to draw it for the Rhode Island Italian-American Heritage Society. I remember I froze. I didn’t know what to say. After a while it becomes part of the work. Thankfully they’ve all enjoyed them so much. It makes me feel good.

SMJ: You also do a lot of charitable work. Is that a way for you to use your talent to do some good?

FG: First and foremost I do it because I don’t have the money I wish to donate. The only way I can give back is to donate my works or create something upon request. I like that I can donate something, the money is raised, and someone gets something back that they’ll have hopefully forever.

SMJ: What do you see as the future of sports cartoons? Do you think it will make a comeback? Is there a thirst for it in the future?

FG: The fans want it. And as long as I’m around I will still do it. If you are talking about newspapers, they can’t afford it on a consistent basis because of changes in the the business with buyouts and cutbacks. They are not going to pay a sports cartoonist a full time salary. Some like me will argue that this type of work might help circulation.

SMJ: What about incorporating your work for the Internet?

FG: That work is growing. I work with TV38.com, WBZ. com, Boston Dirt Dogs.com. I was on Red Sox .com. I was honored to be part of the Red Sox Nation campaign. Online is taking over to an extent. Hopefully there will always be a newspaper but the Internet is giving us an opportunity.

If you are old-school like me, you will appreciate Galasso’s work.  Here’s hoping that the efforts of Galasso and others will bring a new appreciation to this journalistic art form.

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