Although some baseball comics were ephemeral, sports artist Ray Gotto created two diamond stars with much longer legs. The talented artist left indelible marks on sports continuity strips in the dailies and Sunday supplements with a pair of ball players, Ozark Ike and Cotton Woods.
In late 1945 Gotto introduced his hillbilly baseball phenom Ozark Ike. Gotto's strip was in the Al Capp's Li'l Abner tradition. The character was a kind hearted rube with tremendous physical prowess and a buxom honey named Dinah. Their hometown WAS the fictional Wildwood Run.
Ike McBatt, who also played football and basketball in season, became a smash success as a King Features continuity strip. As one of the most successful post-World War II continuity strips, it eventually appeared in more than 250 newspapers, second only to Joe Palooka in the daily sports comic field.
In addition to realistic and taut story lines, with cliff hanging continuations, Gotto was adept in mingling in suspenseful subplots. Ike's love interest, Dinah, a comely beauty of pinup proportions, added another kind of tension to the plot. The strip was a smash hit.
Ike's approach to sports may best be termed eclectic. Plots swung between hillbilly feuds and serious baseball action. Ike's tremendous popularity bridged the marketplace to sports comics, too, when these strips were reprinted as a separate title.
Dell Publishing brought out the first of its Ike comic book reprints in February 1948 in its Four Color line. Satisfied with its reception, Dell launched the hillbilly ball player under his own banner in November of that year. After 10 issues, Standard Comics picked up the title, which ran until Fall 1952.
An entire run of the Ozark Ike comic reprints totals 25 issues. Fine copies of the Dell issues are generally priced in the $25-$30 in the comic book marketplace. A choice issue, however, could bring upwards of $75 or more from a specialist. The Standard Comics issues are cheaper, bringing $15-$20 for fine copies.
The strip remained a smashing newspaper success. After nearly 10 years of heady success with his daily Ike strip, Gotto left in a row with the estate of his agent over creative control of the popular strip.
The following year, Gotto attempted to catch "lighting in a jar" a second time with his Cotton Woods strip. While predominately a nice-guy baseball strip, Gotto also featured boxing, football and basketball story lines in season.
Cotton came from the fictional Lonesome Gap. This picturesque town is straight out of Norman Rockwell. The ball player's love interest is Candie Lane, another curvaceous heroine in the pin-up mold.
As a strip Cotton Woods was innovative and varied, having outstanding art, plot lines and realistic sports action. Gotto excelled as a sports story-teller and his undersized hero was a game underdog. The strip commenced in 1955. Unfortunately the General Features' syndication of the strip was not very successful. Three years later the ill-fated sports strip faded.
As a character in a separate comic, Cotton's career was even briefer. A Dell comic, titled All-American Athlete Cotton Woods, appeared as number 837 in its extensive Four Color line. The Woods title lasted only one issue in September, 1957. In keeping with the season, the comic featured a football cover. Inside both a baseball and a football story showcased Cotton's exploits. The fictional ball player also provided insights on hitting and stealing bases. Although this title is not rare it is in demand, commanding in the $20-$30 range depending on condition.
An excellent artist, Ike's and Cotton's creator Ray Gotto would go on to achieve even greater acclaim as an illustrator at The Sporting News, the weekly baseball tabloid.
Fortunately for collectors, Gotto's Cotton Woods baseball strips have been reprinted in book form by Kitchen Sink Press.
Fred Reed is former News Editor of Coin World and Vice-President of Beckett Publications. A collector for over 40 years, Reed is a member of most national coin and stamp organizations. He is also Secretary of Society of Paper Money Collectors. SPMC awarded Reed its lifetime achievement award for his groundbreaking Civil War Encased Stamps: The Issuers and Their Times, one of his five books. Reed has also written on coins and currency, tokens and medals, stamps, comic books, post cards, Beanie Babies, sports cards and collectibles, engravings and lithographs, movie memorabilia, autographs, antique photography, and Civil War artifacts, all of which he avidly collects. Reed is a long-time member of the American Society of Magazine Editors, the Dallas Press Club and the Society for American Baseball Research.