On the Tonight show a week or so ago, cartoonist Arnold Roth was reflecting on the urge to doodle. At one point in the discussion, Johnny Carson observed that all of us go through a phase of drawing cartoons, but most of us outgrow it. Why, he wondered, hadn't Arnold?
"I guess I never lost my warp," offered Roth gleefully.
"You mean a time warp?" asked Carson.
"No," said Roth, "a warped warp."
While Roth's career as a stand-up cartoonist is still budding, his ornately demented illustrations have been warping the pages of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED for nearly 20 years. His latest series of four-color hallucinations, on spring training, begins on page 36.
It didn't take much to get Roth cracking on this assignment. All Art Director Richard Gangel had to do was whisper the word "baseball" into the phone, and Roth was on a jet to Tampa faster than you could say "Putsy Caballero." Roth, you see, is a Philadelphia native who survives the winter only because the baseball season follows. Enduring year after year of defeat as a Phillies fan added a sense of proportion to his life; he now describes it as a sort of jolly fatalism. "Every April I'd wager that the Phils would win the World Series," says Roth. "But then, I also bet on Japan in World War II—of course, the Japanese were ahead at the time, which is more than I can say for the Phillies."
Losing, he says, is so reflexive to a Phillies fan that even in the final game of last year's Series, with two out in the ninth, two strikes on the Royals' Willie Wilson and the Phils up by three runs, Roth confidently expected Philadelphia to blow the lead, the game and the championship. When Wilson finally struck out to end it all, Roth assumed the crowd-control police dogs had been sent out on the field to bite the players and bring them back to reality.
Roth's own sense of reality seems to lie somewhere out in leftfield. While a student at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late '40s, he'd play saxophone with a dance band until 5 a.m. and then show up two hours late for class. His penchant for burning the midnight oil instead of daubing it on canvas got him kicked out of school—a slight the college has since made up for by giving him an honorary degree and a one-man show. Years later, during a stint as the artist for SI's SCORECARD section, Roth returned home from a gig and, on deadline, executed sketches in his tuxedo. "The ideal togs for drawing with India ink," he says. "The stains never show."
One of his early SI cartoons, captioned "Real life is a magnacosm of sport," used to hang on a wall of our art department. "But Arnold," an editor would sometimes protest, "don't you know there's no such word as 'magnacosm'?"
"Of course I do," Roth would answer, tugging at his polka-dot bow tie, "and that's why you're an editor and I'm a cartoonist."