Norman Rockwell's 'Rookie' reflects on immortal moment
He's age 75 now, but he dreams easily at night knowing for sure that he will forever be known as "The Rookie."
Sherman "Scottie" Safford is riding a pretty big wave these days, and the 1957 Pittsfield High graduate is making sure to stop and smell all the roses.
Safford, a southern California native who moved to Pittsfield during the 1950s, when his father was transferred here by General Electric, caught the break of a lifetime when he was spotted by illustrator Norman Rockwell, who was on a scouting mission at the Pittsfield High School cafeteria during an autumn lunch.
Rockwell was planning a spring training baseball cover for the Saturday Evening Post -- he created 322 such covers for the magazine over the course of his career -- and needed someone to portray something akin to a hayseed rookie reporting to the spring training site of the Boston Red Sox, which in those days was Sarasota, Fla.
The lanky Safford, who was 6 feet 4 inches at the time and the second tallest high school basketball player in the state, satisfied Rockwell's vision and the willing teen got the gig. The formal name of the work is "The Rookie (Red Sox spring training)."
Safford, who was 18 at the time, posed in the fall of 1956; the magazine hit the stands on March 2, 1957. The three members of the Boston Red Sox who posed for Rockwell included Jackie Jensen, Frank Sullivan and Sammy White. Ted Williams and Billy Goodman also are depicted in the illustration, but they did not model for Rockwell.
It was actually Sullivan who adopted Williams' pose, with Rockwell painting the face of the Boston slugger on Sullivan's body.
"Rockwell paid me $60 for each posing session," said Safford, who now lives in Rochester, N.Y., and who made two visits to Rockwell's studio in Stockbridge. "I wish I had kept those checks; they might be worth more than that now."
'Rookie' on the auction block
"The Rookie" is back in the spotlight in recent weeks following the announcement that the private owner of the Rockwell painting has decided to place it for public auction. The anonymous owner has had the original work in his possession since 1986, when the Red Sox lost to the New York Mets in the World Series.
Boston is now atop the baseball world, having won its third World Series title in the past decade back in October. The timing perhaps is right for the sale, which is scheduled for Thursday at Christie's auction house in New York City.
Christie's sold Rockwell's "Saying Grace," another Saturday Evening Post cover, for $30 million in December.
"The Rookie," it's been speculated, could top that figure.
A return on the investment? The sale price in 1986 was $600,000.
Called up to Stockbridge
The upcoming auction has put Safford and Sullivan -- the only living members from the painting -- at center stage.
"For more than 50 years it's just been a memory," Safford said. "Lately, though, it's been a lot more than that."
Said Sullivan, who won 90 games for the Red Sox as a starting pitcher during the 1950s, "I guess as long as that painting is around Frank Sullivan will never die. I don't have an ego that needs that kind of support, but I appreciate the publicity that's come with it."
The Lihue, Hawaii, resident, now 84, said he, Jensen and White drove to Stockbridge on an off day in August during the 1956 season.
"Jackie drove both ways, it took about three hours on both ends because there was no turnpike," Sullivan said. "Sammy and I both sat in the back seat and we bugged Jackie the entire way about the fact we had no beer for the ride. To this day I have no idea how the three of us were selected. In those days you just did what the organization told you to do. We had no idea who Rockwell was or what he wanted us to do.
"When someone showed me the magazine cover that next March I was shocked. I had no idea."
Rockwell's detailed marching orders
The phone rang, and it was Norman Rockwell calling the Safford home in Pittsfield from his Stockbridge studio.
"My mother picked up the call and after he introduced himself she started to, well, it's like the kids say, freak out," said Safford, who called Rockwell a "nuts and bolts kind of guy."
"He was very detailed," added Safford, who on a Saturday morning drove his 1941 Chevrolet car to Stockbridge for a rendezvous with destiny. "I'll never forget that car. I bought it at South Street Chevrolet."
Rockwell, meanwhile, had given the Saffords their marching orders. He was adamant on the phone that Safford show up at the studio with a five-fingered glove, a bat and an old suitcase. He borrowed the glove from classmate Francis "Frank" Murphy, while his mother borrowed an old and tattered suitcase.
The bat? Safford had his own and it was one made of ash that he had crafted in wood shop in an elective course at Pittsfield High School.
"The teacher had been able to get the wood from an ash tree he knew that had been cut down," Safford said. "And, I still have that bat."
And there was one final and important instruction. Said Rockwell, firmly: "Don't cut his hair."
The mop, said Safford, was a little bit shaggy. "It's what he must have wanted," added Safford.
Striking the right pose
Rockwell posed the young man with the glove, bat and suitcase all in his left hand. Safford added his own touch to the illustration by tying his belt around the suitcase, giving it more of a worn appearance.
"He said to me, ‘Give me a snicker grin,'" Safford recalled. "But he didn't like what I did. So, he told me to give him a Cheshire cat grin."
That also wasn't to Rockwell's liking.
"He told me that my cheekbones were too high and that the grin was making my eyes close," Safford said. "Eventually, he got what he wanted. I was also wearing a blue and white shirt. But in the painting he changed the shirt color to red, you know, for the Red Sox.
"I drove to Stockbridge that day and walked up the stairs to his studio. I don't remember being nervous. We had talked that day at the school during lunch. I knew who he was. That day in Stockbridge I remember him being very pleasant."
Please, stop saying ‘please'
Sullivan recalled that during his visit that Rockwell was "too nice."
Said the Red Sox moundsman: "Rockwell was very polite. He bought us lunch somewhere in downtown Stockbridge. We went back to the studio and he started moving us around. Finally, it was Sammy who said to him to please stop saying ‘please' every time he asked us to do something.
"Sammy told him that we were just ballplayers and it was fine to simply tell us what he wanted and we would do it. I think he just wanted to do what we had to do and get back home."
Safford, meanwhile, had a shorter drive. But he was similarly clueless.
"You could say I showed up at the studio a blank canvas both physically and mentally," he said. "Nothing that happened surprised me because I didn't know what to expect."
But unlike the Boston players, the Pittsfield High School student did know a bit about the illustrator.
"When I was growing up in Southern California, I'd visit my grandfather's house on weekends and he always had a stack of Saturday Evening Post magazines," Safford said. "He talked often about Rockwell and helped me understand some of the subtle humor of his work."
An immortal moment
Safford said it's OK that he -- the "rookie" -- is now 75.
"Something like that painting stays with you a lifetime. When times haven't been so good, I've been able to fall back on that as something that was special and good in my life. It's an event that gives you good feelings and memories, like the birth of a child."
Another good feeling might have been receiving a residual from the auction and being cut in on a percentage of the expected $30 million sale.
"Fat chance," said Sullivan, who, like Safford, will have to settle for a lifetime of notoriety.
Brian Sullivan is a columnist for The Berkshire Eagle and its former sports editor.
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