Superstars Drawn Larger Than Life

Illustrator Sam Whitehead captivates youths with sports figures

SAM WHITEHEAD draws and paints the superstars as profusely as the New York Yankees' Paul O'Neill (with a .471 average) bangs out hits.

It's hard to imagine a busier sports artist. This year his work fills two new large-format paperbacks, ``Baseball Super Stars'' and ``Basketball Super Stars'' (Grosset & Dunlap). A third book, ``Red Foley's Cartoon History of Baseball'' (Little Simon), is still available in many stores two years after it was published. Plus, Whitehead is a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated for Kids, whose art director, Rocco Alberico, says, ``I never think of Sam as a sports illustrator. To me, he is just a really good caricaturist and illustrator in general who brings a lot of energy to his work.''

Alberico and others also admire Whitehead's work in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, another regular client of his, and one that allows him to vent a more adult, satirical humor. (His professional stationery carries the motto: ``Flat art for a weary world.'')

``Like a lot of people, I doodled my way through school, drawing caricatures of teachers and famous people,'' Whitehead says by phone from his at-home Manhattan studio. ``I was the class cartoonist.''

As a youngster growing up in Detroit, he remembers attending a Tigers-Los Angeles Angels baseball game in the 1960s as one of his first ``out-of-house experiences.'' Baseball remains his favorite sport, and he enjoys an occasional visit to Yankee or Shea Stadium to freshen his perceptions.

``When you are a visual artist,'' he says, ``you are constantly rechecking your assumptions about the world, because that helps you ring truer with what you draw.''

Whitehead, who works primarily in ink and watercolor, is reluctant to make frequent flights from his studio. ``Going off to a day game still requires a leap of faith from my working-class heritage,'' he says. And besides, the work demands can be too great.

He estimates that he spent five or six weeks illustrating each ``Super Stars'' book and a little longer on the ``History of Baseball,'' which entailed in-depth research and drawing numerous comic-strip-like panels.

The book required meticulous attention to uniform changes through the years, too. He relied on four shelves of baseball reference books to get the ``right look.''

About a year after the project was completed, a book detailing the evolution of major league uniforms since 1900 was published. ``I could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I'd had that book,'' Whitehead says. Mostly, the book confirmed the accuracy of his depictions, although he caught scattered minor errors.

Even in drawing contemporary players, Whitehead says, the fast-changing pro sports scene brings anxious moments.

Michael Jordan's surprise retirement from the Chicago Bulls gave him pause, since Jordan's biography occupies 10 pages in ``Basketball Super Stars.'' Whitehead also swallowed hard when an injury threatened the career of Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco, who is featured in ``Baseball Super Stars.'' Canseco recovered, but Whitehead's artwork is dated anyway, since, as the artist suspected, Texas has new uniforms to go with its new stadium.

Craig Walker, who worked on the ``Super Stars'' books as a vice president and publisher of Grosset & Dunlap, calls Whitehead's use of color ``sensational.'' ``That's always a big thing for children's book people - color that jumps off the page,'' he says.

Walker says the ``Super Stars'' books have sold better than expected, in the 40,000 to 50,000 range, which is very good for a serious purchase in the pre-teen ``boy buy market.'' ``Sam can pick up the likenesses, but it's not photographic or super-real, it's really art,'' Walker says.

Whitehead, a Wayne State University graduate who has also studied art at Pratt Institute and New York University, claims television, with its many closeups, is an ally in capturing facial expressions. ``I admire those people in the past who had to draw from maybe one photograph; they had it a lot harder than people nowadays,'' he says.

``On the other hand, you may have to be a little better ... artistically. Before, you could give a general sense of what a player looked like and get away with it. Now people are so extremely familiar with sports figures, there may be a higher standard.''

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