Monday, February 16, 2009

A bit more time for The Rookie

Sherman Safford posed for Norman Rockwell in 1956,
when he was a high school student in Sarasota.

By Chris Anderson
Published Herald Tribune: Saturday, February 14, 2009

He was spotted in a high school lunch line by a wispy-looking man smoking a long brown pipe. Sherman Safford walked to his table and began to eat, but before he could dunk another Tater Tot in ketchup he received a tap on the shoulder.

Norman Rockwell, the mysterious man across the cafeteria, wanted to see him.

Safford was a lanky, 17-year-old senior in 1956 with a slight build, a shaggy crew cut and an aw-shucks face. He fit perfectly into Rockwell's vision of a major-league baseball team during spring training.

Rockwell, already a famous illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, was working on a magazine cover that would later be considered among his major works.

His illustration is called "The Rookie" and it is set inside the clubhouse of Payne Park in Sarasota, the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox from 1933-58.

Rockwell's illustration perhaps best captures the essence of spring training in Sarasota, of what it once was and what it's become.

The magazine cover, which debuted on March 2, 1957, features five members of the Red Sox, including the legendary Ted Williams.

Safford, the focal point of the illustration, is "The Rookie," a talented hayseed who arrives in the clubhouse, bat, glove and suitcase in hand, fresh off a bus, convinced he's there to save the team.

Since 1924, Sarasota has hosted five teams during 80 springs.

But next spring, when the Cincinnati Reds move to Arizona, Sarasota will be left without a team.

“You are the center of baseball,” said the 70-year-old Safford, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. “Shame on those people for leaving. You have historic value there.”

One of the best things about baseball has always been its stories, and Sarasota has been woven into many of them.

After this spring, the stories will be all that’s left.

Safford said Rockwell came to Sarasota and photographed the Payne Park clubhouse using an old camera with a cloth top.

He always did his illustrations off the photos he shot.

Unlike the illustration that appeared in the magazine, there weren’t palm trees outside the window, so Rockwell added them to give a Sarasota feel.

He also omitted the snuffed-out cigarettes he photographed on the clubhouse floor.

“He said Sarasota was a wonderful place and that was high praise in those days,” said Safford.

“It was baseball and he was such a fan and Sarasota was the basis for that picture so that’s high praise too.”

In the picture is Boston pitcher Frank Sullivan, who spent 11 years in the majors and at 6-foot-7 was once the tallest player in the American League.

“It was fun,” said Sullivan of Sarasota. “That was a great place.

“Baseball is a big business now and certain towns can’t come up with what major-league teams are asking.

“It’s damn sad as far as I’m concerned.”

Sullivan is sitting on the bench, a partial number on his jersey, and his arm is across the shoulder of Boston right-fielder Jackie Jensen.

Catcher Sammy White is in the left foreground; in the far right, second baseman Billy Goodman.

The player in the rear left is not really a player at all, but a creation of Rockwell’s. He named him “John J. Anonymous” for all of the faceless players who never made it.

The player in the back with the towel over his shoulder is Williams, who gave Rockwell permission to use his likeness but was the only player who didn’t agree to pose for a photo.

The body of Williams is actually that of Sullivan.

There are those who feel Rockwell painted a less-than-flattering rendition of Williams’ face.

“I think Rockwell did that as a joke on Ted because he was too big to come down and get his picture taken,” Safford said.

Sullivan, a teammate of Williams, said the Hall of Famer never mentioned it.

“He must have been upset about his head,” Sullivan said. “He was a good looking a guy ... but ooh.”

Sullivan and Safford are the only two people in the picture alive today.

They only recently came into contact with each other after the cover was on display a few years ago in a Boston museum.

The 79-year-old Sullivan has lived in Kauai, Hawaii since 1964 and is retired from the golf business.

He remembers reluctantly agreeing to drive three hours with the other players on an off-day to have lunch with “this little skinny guy” and then pose inside his studio.

The players forgot about it until the next year when they found themselves on the cover of one of the most popular magazines in America.

“It was wonderful,” said Sullivan, “and by that time we knew who the hell he (Rockwell) was.”

Safford still can’t believe he was plucked from a high school lunch line.

He was in the Army the following year when the magazine came out, stationed in Fort Dix.

His mother called with the news.

He wasn’t allowed out of the barracks, but he busted through a door anyway and came back with an armload of magazines.

His angry commander was waiting for him.

“The platoon sergeant said, ‘I think you’re in big trouble’ but I was so pumped up I didn’t give a damn.

“I said, ‘I’m on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.’”

And sure enough, on the index page as proof, Safford’s name was there along with those of the players.

The magazine became an exhibit inside the Hall of Fame.

“I made it into the Hall of Fame before my heroes did,” Safford said.

Safford, who never saw Rockwell again after the day he posed, still has a few signed copies. He thinks the original illustration is out there somewhere.

“This is a part of America and a very popular part of America,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you could get one or two million dollars out of it.”

Safford was asked what he sees when he looks at the picture now.

“It takes me back to when I was 17, which isn’t a bad thing,” he said.

In Sarasota, only one more spring remains to be 17 again.

One last time to saunter into the clubhouse, extend a hand to Ted Williams and naively act like baseball will be here forever.

Welcome to the team, rookie.

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