On This Day

Ripley’s Believe It or Not, ripley champs and chumps, first ripley cartoon
“Champs and Chumps,” the first “Believe
It or Not!” cartoon.

On This Day: Ripley’s “Believe it or Not!” Debuts

December 19, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 19, 1918, Robert Ripley’s cartoon panel of odd sports accomplishments was published in the New York Globe, the first of his famous “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” series.

Ripley’s “Believe It or Not!” Published in the New York Globe

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Ripley, known as an extremely shy but eccentric person, had two passions as a young man: art and sports. In 1913, he moved from San Francisco to New York City to try out for the New York Giants, but his baseball ambitions ended when he broke his arm. With experience drawing cartoons for two San Francisco dailies, he got a job with the New York Globe drawing a daily sports cartoon.

It was during a lull in inspiration for his daily drawing that he sketched a panel of sports oddities, including a man who had run backwards for 100 yards in 14 seconds, and another who had hopped that distance in 11 seconds. The panel, submitted with the title “Champs and Chumps,” was changed by the editor to “Believe It or Not!”

It was a hit with readers and it soon became a weekly feature. Ripley started to travel the world, expanding his range of subjects to include oddities from outside sports. In 1929, the feature began running in publisher William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, giving it worldwide distribution. Ripley published a Believe It or Not! book, opened a traveling “Odditorium” exhibit and began a career in radio, film and television.
But while Ripley’s fame spread, it was the researcher and linguist Norbert Pearlroth who from 1923 to 1975 spent most of his days at the New York City Public Library discovering the facts and anecdotes that would make Ripley’s column a continuing phenomenon.

Pearlroth discovered “at least 62,192 amazing facts and anecdotes,” wrote Time. “One skeptical reader wrote 27,167 double-checking letters to sources and never found an unsubstantiated item.”

Biography: Leroy “Robert” Ripley

Leroy Ripley was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1890. According to the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Web site, he may have “changed his own birthday from December 26 to Christmas Day in order to accentuate his eccentricity.”

He showed an early penchant for drawing, selling his first cartoon to Life magazine at age 14. About a year later, he began cartooning for San Francisco area papers and later moved to New York, where he began calling himself “Robert.”

Ripley, as his fortunes and fame came in, developed a reputation for eccentricity. He kept a 28-foot boa constrictor as a pet, and let squirrels and chipmunks run around him while he drew. He wielded his newfound fame into various trappings such as a stint trying out for the New York Yankees, sailing on his authentic Chinese junk and extensive world travel.

Ripley was known to exaggerate his own accomplishments, for instance boasting that he had visited 200 countries though the number included the Garden of Eden, Sicily and Tangier. He was also a “confirmed bachelor” who had actually been married. Although his feature’s assertions were often challenged, they were rarely if ever proved wrong.

Reference: “Believe it or Not!”

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