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Epilogue | Lamar Sparkman

From Lamar Sparkman's mind arose Bucco Bruce, Buccaneers' first logo

TAMPA — Three of his paintings hang on clubhouse walls of Augusta National Golf Club, dozens more in the homes of Tampa residents who can afford them.

He has drawn portraits of some of the greatest sports stars of all time, including Arnold Palmer, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Reggie Jackson.

But in the Tampa Bay area, Lamar Sparkman will always be known for designing the logo fans love to hate: Bucco Bruce, the plume-bearing, winking pirate who adorned the helmets of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 20 mostly losing seasons.

Mr. Sparkman, an artist who worked for the Tampa Times and Tampa Tribune for nearly three decades and was also part of the group of insiders that created the team name "Buccaneers," died Jan. 6. He was 88.

Players feared that Bucco Bruce became the face of "their lifelong ridicule — and he pretty much was," said Tom McEwen, a former sports editor for the Tampa Times and Tribune who also helped pave the way for the franchise.

"That's what they made Bucco Bruce; he was their fall guy," said McEwen, 86. "He never was a hero. He never did anything."

Mr. Sparkman was a third-generation Tampa Bay area resident who was proud of his ancestors' citrus-farming background and his grandfather, who was a U.S. representative based in Hillsborough County.

At 5 feet 7 with broad shoulders, Mr. Sparkman played halfback for his Plant High football team. He fought in Italy as an Army Air Forces armament sergeant in World War II, stopping before he deployed to marry Gloria Johnston, his friend since the second grade and eventual sweetheart.

After 22 months overseas, he returned and published his first sports cartoon in the Tampa Times. He moved over to the Tribune in 1958.

A part-time citrus entrepreneur, he wore jeans and boots to the newsroom, where he worked as a regular freelancer. Former Tribune artist Russ Kramer remembers Mr. Sparkman as "kind of a big shot … one of those guys who always had the run of the paper."

"He had an extra dimension to most sports because he did cartoons," said Paul Hogan, 76, a retired Tribune managing editor. "That's the way he communicated. As far as I know, there was a very healthy response (from readers)."

Leonard Levy, a former chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority who led efforts to secure both a professional football team and a Super Bowl in Tampa, recalled Sparkman's distinctive drawings of up-and-coming high school and college athletes. Being considered good enough to "get a Sparky" was considered a great honor.

"To many of those athletes, that was the highlight of their playing days," said Levy, 76.

As far as editors were concerned, there was only one problem with Mr. Sparkman's work: getting it. He was both a perfectionist and a procrastinator, and frequently blew deadlines.

"I'd actually have to go to his house to make him step on it, or quit," McEwen said.

But it was McEwen who made sure that the Tribune hired Mr. Sparkman after McEwen moved there. In the mid 1970s as a professional football team appeared destined for Tampa, "Sparkman had a hand in naming the Bucs the Bucs," McEwen said.

He designed the Buccaneer logo, a handsome pirate with a knife in his teeth and a plume in his helmet. Over many losing seasons, fans came to detest the orange-and-white "creamsicle" look — and Bucco Bruce.

Away from work, Mr. Sparkman loved anything having to do with water. He fished extensively in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and crewed a sailboat to Maine while in his late 70s. He kept up a Boston Whaler long after a stroke and diminishing eyesight made it difficult for him to use, just so his grandchildren could.

He shared his gifts with family, whether in the form of cartoons he could whip up instantly — say, of the people at the next table at a restaurant — or with gifts, such as sending his grandson to Europe.

"It was a nice present," said Derrill McAteer, now 32 and a lawyer in Tampa. "There is no way I could have done that."

Mr. Sparkman left the Tribune in 1987 to devote more time to painting. He studied nature for accuracy, particularly the human form, filling file cabinets with images from National Geographic or the Saturday Evening Post.

"He said hands were very difficult to draw," said Rosemary McAteer, 65, Mr. Sparkman's daughter. To help him draw correctly, Mr. Sparkman managed to get a complete human skeleton from the University of Florida College of Medicine.

He took "Mr. Bones" with him on trips to his studio in Boca Grande, strapping the skeleton in the passenger seat with a seat belt for safekeeping. (A gas station owner in Boca Grande took one look and said, "You've got to get that fellow something to eat.")

Both Bruce and the creamsicle look were tossed overboard after the 1996 season, a year after Malcolm Glazer bought the team. The Bucs switched to a more menacing red and pewter color that featured a skull on the logo.

Fans were all too ready to say goodbye to Bruce, whose nonfrightening look and insinuating wink they found unsettling.

Hearing their glee on talk radio stirred Phil Jones, a Riverview commercial artist and former Walt Disney Studios animator, to pity.

In middle school, Jones used to draw the logo on his backpack. When Jones found out Mr. Sparkman lived in Tampa, he got up his nerve and called him.

They talked for an hour and a half. Jones told Mr. Sparkman, whom he found to be a "nice, kind guy," that he had always thought of Bucco Bruce similarly to actor Errol Flynn.

"He said that's what he meant it to be — an Errol Flynn kind of thing, not a gay pirate," said Jones, 42.

After keeping them on the shelf for a dozen years, the Glazers brought back the creamsicle uniforms in a retro-themed game Nov. 9 against the Green Bay Packers. Though some fans still cringed, others welcomed the old uniforms.

Perhaps the Bucs' recent woes had something to do with that.

"The downturn of the Bucs' red and pewter uniforms actually elevated the emotional stock of the orange and white Bucco Bruce uniforms this year," said Scott Reynolds, publisher of pewterreport.com, a Buccaneers online magazine.

The Bucs won the game against the Packers 38-28. Reynolds looks for Bruce to return this year, now that the fear of a Bucco Bruce jinx has been removed.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Lamar Sparkman

Born: July 11, 1921.

Died: Jan. 6, 2010.

Survivors: Daughters Rosemary Sparkman McAteer and her husband, Derrill, and Lamar Sparkman Toole and her husband, John; three grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and numerous extended family members.

From Lamar Sparkman's mind arose Bucco Bruce, Buccaneers' first logo 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 11:29pm]

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