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A True Artist: Remembering the life and career of SCD illustrator Ronnie Joyner

Longtime sports artist and illustrator Ronnie Joyner passed away at age 58. A contributor to SCD for more than 25 years, Joyner was considered "a true artist."

Ronnie Joyner was an artist. A true artist in every sense of the word.

Whether he was plying his trade as a graphic designer, writing songs and playing music with his popular rockabilly band or drawing Baseball Art for Sports Collectors Digest, Joyner poured his heart and soul into his creative passion.

Joyner, whose signature bio-illustrations appeared in SCD for more than 25 years, passed away on March 28 at the age of 58. His is survived by his wife, Carla, and three sons.

SCD artist and illustrator Ronnie Joyner.

SCD artist and illustrator Ronnie Joyner.

"Ronnie was an immensely talented artist with a keen eye for detail and a passion for sports,” said Paul Kennedy, editorial director for SCD. “His work was joyful and timeless. We will miss his presence in our pages."

Joyner combined his love for sports and art during a career that spanned more than 30 years. His Baseball Art for SCD chronicled the lives and careers of the game’s biggest stars and sports legends. He also created illustrated card sets and autobiographies for organizations devoted to baseball history.

Also See: Baseball Art by Ronnie Joyner 

His 2012 book “Hardball Legends and Journeymen and Short-Timers” featured bio-illustrations on 333 baseball stars and obscure players. In 2020, he wrote and published an illustrated booklet commemorating the Washington Nationals 2019 World Series team.

Born in Northeast Washington, D.C., Joseph Ronald “Ronnie” Joyner always had a fascination with sports. In the late 1960s, his family moved to Prince George’s County, Md., where he played for various Oxon Hill Boys Club teams. Though he enjoyed all sports, his first love was baseball. He played center field for his Oxon Hill High School team.

While in high school, Joyner also developed a love for comic books and illustrations. He started drawing by tracing illustrations of Spider-Man, his favorite superhero, and eventually created his own comic book.

He was also inspired by sports illustrators and graphic artists for such popular publications as MAD Magazine.

“That’s how it started, with his fascination with graphic novels and that type of comic book art,” said Carla Joyner, his wife of 32 years. “He was a big fan of different illustrators and that type of artwork … and he just combined it with baseball and other sports.”

After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Maryland in 1987, Joyner began working as a graphic designer for Nichols & Duncan in Alexandria, Va., where he remained for nearly 25 years.

During his spare time, he was constantly working on illustrations for SCD and other publications.

“First thing in the morning, even on a workday, that’s how he woke up,” Carla Joyner said. “He didn’t drink coffee, so I would go make coffee and he would wake up and get ready for the day, and then he would be at his drawing board in the corner of our family room. He could be found working there almost every day, because he knew that those illustrations were going to be in SCD.

“He worked on them all the time and he had so much fun with them.”

What made Joyner’s Baseball Art so popular and unique is that he not only drew beautiful, detailed illustrations of the game’s biggest stars, but he also told stories that commemorated their lives and careers. And he not only profiled Hall of Famers and legends like Mickey Mantle, but often featured little-known players with fascinating stories.

Ronnie Joyner bio-illustration on baseball Hall of Famer Tony Oliva.

Ronnie Joyner bio-illustration on baseball Hall of Famer Tony Oliva.

“They didn’t have to be the most famous baseball players that everybody knew,” Carla said. “He enjoyed the process of finding people that he knew played a little bit or had an interesting story.

“He knew these were going to be in SCD but what he thought was also cool is that it was just a way to find interesting stories, because really the story is the thing.”

“My love of baseball history made it a natural that I would eventually dedicate my artistic ability to documenting the colorful stories and characters of the game,” Joyner noted in his 2012 book. “As for who to draw, I never really cared whether a ballplayer I was illustrating had a 20-year career or a 20-minute career. My personal compulsion was to choose subjects based on interesting storylines, and I found those could come from Hall of Famers, the everyday players or the cup-of-coffee guys.”

One of his favorite illustrations was on actor Charlie Sheen, who played Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn in the 1989 baseball classic “Major League.” Joyner sent the illustration to Sheen’s best friend, fellow actor Tony Todd. When Todd showed it to Sheen, the famous actor loved it so much he sent Joyner a note and voice message, forging a friendship between the three.

Joyner developed numerous friendships over the years with SCD subscribers and fellow sports fans.

“When something ran in SCD, he would get letters from people and that would prompt another story or a new friend,” Carla said. “A lot of time he would correspond with them. He loved doing them because they perpetuated this friendship and connection and stories, and it opened a whole new door of friends and other avenues that he really enjoyed.”

Joyner was constantly drawing illustrations and honing his craft. He even drew during church, doodling on flyers and church bulletins and keeping them in his Bible.

“He would do doodles on the outside of the flyer that just cracked me up,” Carla said. “I would look over and he was sketching. He always did military guys saluting or sports guys hitting a ball or throwing a ball, just like his bio illustrations. They were just little doodles, but they were so good.”

Ronnie Joyner and his wife, Carla (center), and their family.

Ronnie Joyner and his wife, Carla (center), and their family.

The Joyners often celebrated their wedding anniversary by traveling to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. On one trip, they stopped to eat at a restaurant that had paper tablecloths. While waiting for their food, Ronnie began sketching a baseball scene on their tablecloth.

“I said, ‘You should sign that,’” Carla recalls. “And he did, ‘Joyner, 1996,’ or whatever year it was. When the waitress came back, she said, ‘Oh my god, that is so cool.’ And she said, ‘Can I keep that? I’m going to cut that out.’

“We don’t know where it is now, but that’s the kind of stuff he did.”

While developing his craft, Joyner continued to cultivate his love for sports. In 2002, he and his family moved from Accokeek, Md. to Charlotte Hall, where he coached youth sports teams, including Little League baseball and softball. He loved playing catch with his sons and players on his teams and could often be found with a trunk full of bats, balls and gloves in his car.

Ronnie Joyner

Ronnie Joyner 

He also had a love for music. He learned to play guitar from his dad and enjoyed all kinds of music, from country to doo wop and rockabilly.

It helped that he was blessed with the look of a musician, with his pompadour hairstyle often attracting attention. He and Carla were at a Stray Cats concert once when lead singer Brian Setzer pointed to Joyner and said, “I like your hair, man.”

“That was pretty cool,” Carla recalls.

In 1991, Joyner was in an auto parts store when his “rockabilly hair” attracted the attention of Bill Hull, the guitarist for local rockabilly band Go Cat Go. Through Hull, Joyner met Lance, Preston and Wendy LeBeau and in 1992 the group formed popular rockabilly band the Flea Bops. With Joyner as the lead singer and guitarist, the band built a national and international following, performing all over the U.S. and abroad.

Ronnie Joyner and the Flea Bops

Ronnie Joyner and the Flea Bops. 

Joyner was also a prolific songwriter. During the COVID pandemic, he started his own YouTube channel. Packaged with his own art and illustrations, “The Ronnie Joyner Songbook” tells the stories and inspiration behind his songs. And fittingly, he often mixed his art and music with sports, introducing songs on baseball history (“Baseball Talking Blues”) and paying tribute to such legends as Jackie Robinson (“Tip Your Cap to 42”).

Whether he was writing songs or drawing new illustrations for SCD, Ronnie Joyner was always true to his spirit.

“He was a true artist,” his wife said. 

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