Mitch Ransdell’s career seemed to be at its nadir when the CoVid-19 pandemic was at its zenith.
The Chicago resident is a creative sort and as such puts his talents to use the best way he knows how. He teaches drama at a Lutheran school, does work for several theaters based in the city and helps out on the occasional music video while also working at a nature museum center just outside Chicago.
It all made and once again makes for a busy but fulfilling schedule for the 27-year-old. When CoVid-19 hit, though, Ransdell, like so many others, saw his professions shut down, limiting when and where he could to earn a living for himself and his wife, Katie. Even baseball, the one thing he could always count on, was not available to him in the spring of 2020
“When you see your industry get shut down for months at a time, you realize that this can happen anytime without warning,” Ransdell said. “I had a lot of friends, singers and musicians, who were completely out of work and had to find something else. A lucky few had other things cooking. And a lot of the guys who were hooking lights and rigging stages went to climbing radar towers and telephone poles.”
Ransdell, however, was not forced to take such drastic measures. He had been drawing and sketching since he was in grade school. So, he simply took his love of baseball and all his newfound free time and turned it into something special, creating the Southside Sharpie, chronicler of White Sox history one sketch at a time. Ransdell is a Sharpie artist, using only the famous markers to create beautiful works of art depicting players who have donned a White Sox uniform for more than a century.
His work in the Windy City has garnered a great deal of attention over the last 24 months, earning him a position drawing and writing for SB Nation while making him more well-known on the South Side than Leroy Brown.
“I’ve been drawing all my life; I’ve always been artsy,” said Ransdell, who selects and draws the White Sox Player of the week for SB Nation’s South Side Sox page. “With that absence of baseball [in 2020] I was really looking for that outlet that artists need. I went onto YouTube and watched old, archived [White Sox] games from the 70s and 80s. I started doodling and I had a lot of Sharpie markers. There was high contrast and these were bold drawings. It was kind of a challenge to capture baseball personalities with a simple medium and it took off from there.
“I’ve been working with SB Nation for a little over a year. I started doing that weekly bit for them. They had initially reached out to me to do some illustrations but I do some writing, too. They said if I ever want to write something to go along with it, I could so I figured I’d give it a shot.”
Ransdell, who goes by the handle @soxsketcher on Twitter and southsidesharpie on Instagram, says that he has created between 50 and 60 pieces since he began this venture, ranging in size from a postcard to a poster-sized piece. The pieces sell for $40 and up, depending on the size.
Many of his pieces have been purchased but he also saves a few for himself. Those are hanging on his wall and he is quick to point out that he doesn’t think he’ll be selling them any time soon.
“I usually have a person or two comment or direct message me about a certain piece,” Ransdell said.
“I feel like creating something and bringing something interesting into the world. When everything shut down, baseball drawings just became a way to scratch that itch.”
Ransdell said he has been producing one piece per week since the beginning of spring training and will continue to draw them through the end of the post-season. The rest of the season is filled with creating other “off-beat pieces”. One of his biggest pieces was a 4×3 of old Comiskey Park, the second of two such pieces, that he sold for several hundred dollars. Each piece takes several hours to make but Ransdell spreads the bigger pieces out over several days because “you can only breathe in so much Sharpie fumes”. To that end, he has begun to experiment with digital illustration.
“There are a lot of Sharpie artists out there but I didn’t start this with Sharpies in mind,” Ransdell said. “I just did something based on what I had laying around. But there is a whole community of Sharpie artists.
“I do crumble some up and start over, frequently. Especially at the beginning. What I always do now is start with the face and if the face doesn’t look right, there is no point in continuing. I start with the eyes and work out from there. I always sketch it in pencil first, detail it in and then erase the pencil later.”
Ransdell added that the favorite piece he created is one of the first ‘big ones’ that he did of the old Comiskey Park. He based it off a photo that was nearly 100 or so years old and now has the drawing hanging over his mantle. Ransdell never got the chance see Comiskey Park, though. It closed in 1990.
“I wish I could have seen it,” he said. “The problem with the current White Sox park [Guarantee Rate Field] is that it was built before the whole retro stadium movement. They’ve done a lot of work to make it homier but it’s still just a big, concrete block. It was a mistake to build it without bricks, like Camden Yards, which still has the feel of an old park.
“As much as we hate to admit being jealous of the Cubs, they still have a stadium that the city put money into to preserve and restore. Comiskey didn’t get that chance. Sox fans are secretly a little envious of the Cubs that have that history when ours was taken away from us.”
Still, Ransdell has that original Comiskey piece hanging over his mantle. That he was able to create that drawing and dozens of others doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Ransdell said he has been drawing since a very young age and that his art teachers through middle school, junior high and high school were all very encouraging. He realized that he had some talent by the time he got to high school and decided that he wanted fuel those creative desires.
Ransdell began to draw more and paint but wasn’t bound by one particular medium. He said he was willing to try just about anything to ‘scratch that creative itch’. Ultimately he would go to Columbia College, a private, non-profit school in Chicago that teaches young artists how to blend creative, media and liberal arts.
“I plunged myself into this city full of creative minds,” said Ransdell, who played hockey mostly while growing up. “There were artists bouncing ideas off each other and I honed everything down a bit to a finer point. My degree ended up being in film and I still do some work as a prop maker for a lot of the Chicago theater scene. I like creating something. I don’t care if it’s a Sharpie drawing or a fake baseball bat that an actor can use to hit someone over the head with. I feel like creating something and bringing something interesting into the world. When everything shut down, baseball drawings just became a way to scratch that itch.”
Scratching that itch has led him to become an integral part of the White Sox community. He grew up watching the likes of Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko and currently lists Jose Abreu as his favorite player.
“Jose Abreu just has such a working class feel about him,” Ransdell said. “He reminds me of players like [Hall-of-Famer] Minnie Minoso and guys who came from Cuba back in the day and worked their asses off in the sport. He’s like that; he just goes out there and works. He gets dirty, goes home at the end of the day and comes back the next day. There is no showiness there, he’s just a hard worker.
“Drawing Frank Thomas is tricky. It’s hard to capture the bulk of that guy; he’s a big dude. I would love to do a really great Frank Thomas and a great Jim Thome as well. Those are two I really want to tackle. I’ve met Frank a couple of times and meeting Thome would be unbelievable.”
Ransdell also favors legendary Sox slugger Dick Allen, whom he never had the chance to meet in person though he did speak to him briefly on the phone shortly before his death. He did several drawings of Allen, including one of the famous 1972 Sports Illustrated cover photo of Allen smoking a cigarette and juggling baseballs in the Chicago dugout.
“The Dick Allen was probably the biggest thing for me personally,” Ransdell said. “A lot of times I get messages from players parents or other family members asking if they could buy something so they could hang it on their wall. That’s very exciting for me. Some current players’ families have reached out like [Michael] Kopek’s family and Andrew Vaughn’s family. And just to get a comment [on my work] from someone like Liam Hendricks is enough to make it worthwhile.”
That Ransdell can look at Allen and understand what he meant to the White Sox despite the fact that he played in Chicago 50 years ago speaks to his understanding of the club’s history. Ransdell likes to take different approaches to his work, touching on players from all eras to ensure his that his catalog is complete.
“It’s almost daunting to try and capture this team’s history fairly,” Ransdell said. “I try to spread it out. This week let’s draw someone from the 40s then jump to the 70s, then the 1920s so I can cover everything equally. That’s what makes it fun. And they have such a variety of uniforms. I am a huge fan of graphic design and the Sox uniform history is about as good as it gets with baseball. They have dozens of completely original designs and are an endless source of inspiration, especially the shorts.”
Ransdell usually works off photos new and old but says he has tried to take his pad to the ballpark and draw live. Those attempts, however, have been fruitless simply because of the numerous distractions at the stadium.
“It was not great,” he said. “It wasn’t the same. Usually, I am drawing in complete silence or I have a game on in the background. Being in the stadium didn’t have the same feel but I want to give it another shot. Also, because you are so far from the players, it’s tricky to get a read on their stance and that kind of stuff. When you’re copying off an old card or picture it’s easier. When [Tim] Anderson is jumping all over the place it’s hard to sketch it out properly.”
Ransdell usually only does White Sox but will draw another player on commission if someone asks. He also generally sticks with black and white though there is the occasional burst of color, like the time he drew Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs.
“I don’t draw Cubs but I did one for my grandmother,” Ransdell said. “I did some Cubs blue on there and that’s something I want to try a little more to shake things up a little. I don’t know if my passion would be as strong for [drawing] other teams, but I’d be open to it. It [Schwarber] was the first and last time I will ever draw a Cubs player, though.”
Whether that proves to be the case remains to be seen. In the meantime, Ransdell plans to continue his work for SB Nation, all while fulfilling his role as an integral part of the Chicago White Sox community.