Painted in 1957 as the March 2nd cover for The Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell's The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room) is an iconic image by an artist celebrated for shaping the culture of a nation with his vision of America. As America's preeminent illustrator, Rockwell was one of the greatest mass communicators of the century. Painting a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, he helped forge a sense of national identity through his art, producing more than 800 magazine covers. In doing so, Rockwell became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created. The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room), which depicts America's greatest pastime, painted in a patriotic palette of predominately red, white and blue, is as quintessentially Rockwell and singularly American as the very best of his work.
The Boston Red Sox are one of America's oldest and most beloved teams in Major League Baseball. Founded in 1901 as one of the American League's eight charter franchises, Boston was a dominant team in these early years. Between their inception and 1918 they won five World Series Titles. What would follow was an 86 year losing streak. Despite their lack of titles in these intervening years, however, they remained one of the most storied and popular franchises in the industry. This was due, in large part, to their star player of 19 years, Ted Williams. Rockwell, having moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1953, would have been well indoctrinated into the cult following and phenomenon that surrounded "the greatest hitter who ever lived."
In 1939, the Red Sox contracted outfielder Ted Williams from the minor league San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. Williams transformed the team and had such a tremendous impact during his 19 year reign as to have the team nicknamed the 'Ted Sox.' Williams hit for both maximum power and high average, and his batting average of .406 during the 1941 season still stands today. Despite the team's failure to recapture a World Series win, Williams generated energy and excitement for the franchise. In a new biography on Williams, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, biographer Ben Bradlee, Jr. writes, "I was struck by the way the atmosphere at Fenway Park changed each time he came to bat. There would be an anticipatory murmur from the crowd when Ted stepped into the box. He'd knock some real or imagined dirt from his spikes, dig in, wiggle his hips, grind his hands on the handle of the bat, and hold it tight against his body, ready to face the pitcher. People never considered leaving their seats when Williams was hitting. His at bats were events, and he himself was the main event in Boston sports from 1939 to 1960." (The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, New York, 2013, p. 3) Williams was equally well-known for his role off the field, which contributed to his celebrity status. Williams served twice in the United States Marine Corps as a pilot and saw active duty in both World War II and the Korean War, missing at least five full seasons of baseball. He was also a big personality, often clashing with reporters, eliciting as much controversy in the press as he did fanfare on the field.
In the 1950s, Ben Hibbs, the editor of The Post, pushed Rockwell to make his covers more topical and current, so as to increase circulation of what was already the magazine with highest circulation in the nation. In the summer of 1956, Rockwell envisioned the concept for this blockbuster cover. The idea was particularly timely, given that Williams was rumored to be on the verge of retirement. As early as 1954, Williams' had threatened to hang up his bat. 1954, The Post ran his autobiography in several parts and called it This is My Last Year. Capitalizing on this interest in Williams' career, Rockwell painted The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room). Virginia Mecklenburg writes of the present work, "Baseball images had been popular fare for cover artists since the early years of the twentieth century, but for The Rookie, Rockwell went to great effort to feature real, recognizable ballplayers. He decided to do the painting nine months or more before the image was published, in March 1957, just as spring training for the baseball season got under way...Although Rockwell had painted portraits of movie stars and presidential candidates, never before had he portrayed celebrity in such equivocal terms." (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg, Washington, D.C. 2010, pp. 161-62).
While Williams was the inarguable stand out of the Red Sox in the late 1950s, several other players commanded the nation's attention as well. Pitcher Frank Sullivan, right fielder Jackie Jensen, catcher Sammy White and second baseman Billy Goodman were all key members of the starting line-up and had avid followings in their own right. Frank Sullivan recalled being instructed by the Red Sox management team to comply with Rockwell's request to pose for this picture. He wrote, "In the mid-50s if the front office told you to drive to Stockbridge, and bring your uniform, that's exactly what you did. On an off day in 1956, Goodman, Sam White, and Jackie Jensen [and I] were told to motor west to the western Massachusetts town. When we got there we were greeted warmly by a small, slim man, whose name meant nothing to me. He posed us and took a number of pictures, explaining that the background would be the locker room we used in Sarasota, Florida, for spring training. I remember ragging on Jackie Jensen on the way back, saying the trip was all his idea, and the photographer didn't seem to know what he was doing. The following March, I pick up The Saturday Evening Post, and there we were on the cover. The man was an illustrator, not a photographer, and if you look closely, you'll see we are wearing street shoes, not spikes. The cover was titled 'The Rookie' and the man's name turned out to be Norman Rockwell." (Frank Sullivan, Life Is More Than 9 Innings, Hawaii, 2008). Ted Williams was unable to make the trip to Stockbridge so Rockwell worked from photos the Red Sox sent him to create his likeness. For the part of The Rookie, Rockwell tapped Sherman Safford, aged 17, from Pittsfield, Vermont, to pose as the young, eager player.
Baseball was not a new subject for Rockwell and he painted several other The Post covers, as well as countless other compositions. For Rockwell, not only was baseball America's pastime, it was often another showcase to demonstrate his preferred subject matter of men and boys at leisure. Virginia Mecklenburg writes, "Unlike Rockwell's joking baseball pictures--of boys playing pickup ball or disappointed umpires calling a game for rain--the face-off between a youngster...and a veteran player--pits youth against experience. The kid is gangly and eager. His white socks, cheap suitcase, and big hands mark him as a naïve newcomer with potential. The expression on Williams's face suggests that the thirty-eight year old slugger was not yet ready to welcome a challenger." (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg, p. 182).
As in Rockwell's best work for The Saturday Evening Post, the subject of The Rookie is not Ted Williams or even baseball, but rather the championing of the underdog. From his very first cover for The Post in 1916, Boy with Baby Carriage, Rockwell has identified with downtrodden, the meek, and the over matched. This enduring theme is what, in large part, makes Rockwell's work both so touching and so universally understood. The rookie, posed for by Sherman Safford, a tall, high school boy aged 17, can be seen as Rockwell's avatar. Rockwell, ever insecure would have identified with the rookie, having often felt small, meek and overlooked--both throughout his childhood, and by the art world. An enduring theme of his works is to champion the little guy, who is always painted in a sympathetic and endearing light. And indeed, when looking at works such as The Rookie, the viewer finds him or herself rooting for the underdog.
Rockwell hired photographers to take the images for his works, often taking over 100 photographs for a single image. He preferred the photographers to be amateur and that the images be taken in black and white, so as not to influence his color selection. Much like a movie director, he changed the figures positioning, details of the background and their clothing throughout his deliberate creative process, which usually entailed doing several small studies in oil for color followed by a very detailed charcoal study to scale. He used color to dramatic effect (as evidenced here by the bold interplay of red, white and blue). Virginia Mecklenburg writes, "It is a tribute to, not a criticism of, his highly developed intellect and social sensibilities to acknowledge that Rockwell calculated his pictures for maximum and particular impact." (Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, p. 28)
The palm trees featured in The Rookie, locate this scene in Florida and identify the scene as spring training. Rockwell had visited the training facility down in Sarasota and taken a number of reference photos of the locker room for use in his final composition. Rockwell captured the locker room in great detail, from the carved graffiti in the wooden pole, rendered with sgraffito technique, to the items in the player's lockers. His detailed charcoal study for the finished cover reveals he decided to omit the waste and cigarette butts that were strewn across the floor. The myriad details in this composition, as in so many of Rockwell's highly finished compositions for The Post means that each viewing reveals a new detail.
Despite Rockwell's embrace of photography, he was at heart a formalist. He was deeply indebted to the Old Masters and a great admirer of Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn, among others. The composition of The Rookie recalls the Renaissance practice of creating a pyramidal scheme in which the focus of composition is the high point of the triangle. In The Rookie, Rockwell has carefully arranged his figures into a pyramidal form with Ted Williams at the center, not unlike in Raphael's Sant'Antonio di Padova Altarpiece (Colonna Altarpiece), which also features seven figures carefully posed at staggered heights. In The Rookie, he has altered the traditional arrangement, however, with the addition of the figure of the rookie. While the rookie is off to the right of center, the height added by his hat makes him the literal high point of the composition, above Williams. All of the characters maintain visual focus on the rookie, also heightening the sense that he is, in fact, the center of the image, and our imagination. This is the compositional manifestation of Rockwell's fascination with the underdog, and a clever way to subtly displace Williams from his perch.
Rockwell has been oft criticized by the art world for being too literal, too illustrative in his work, perhaps as a result of his open reliance on photography. Yet while his methods and imagery may have differed from other artists of his time trying to capture America following the devastation of World War II and its subsequent boom, some of his contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, were focused on the same sort of everydayness that Rockwell championed in his work. It was the technique, more than the chosen subject, that created the sense of a vast divide. Karal Ann Marling discusses this aesthetic gulf, noting "When Edward Hopper painted studies of private emotions on display in public places, he stripped interiors bare of complexity to reveal the inner dilemma of the sitter: his windows looked out upon obdurate sheets of color. Rockwell, on the other hand, used windows to locate his scenes in the geography of a real story. " (K.A. Marling, Norman Rockwell, New York, 1997, p. 132)
Norman Rockwell's work has always been characterized as a reflection of our better selves, capturing America as it ought to be. His work is often also viewed as both of a moment and simultaneously timeless, in its communication of the universal truths of human nature. "In the twentieth century, visual imagery permeated American culture, ultimately becoming the primary means of communication. Rockwell's images have become part of a collective American memory. We remember selective bits and pieces of information and often reassemble them in ways that mingle fantasy with reality. We formulate memory to serve our own needs and purposes. Rockwell knew this instinctively: 'Everything I have ever seen or done has gone into my pictures in one way or another...Memory doesn't lie, though it may distort a bit here and there.'" (M.H. Hennessey, A. Knutson, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, exhibition catalogue, Atlanta, Georgia, 1999, p. 64) Laurie Norton Moffatt, Executive Director of The Norman Rockwell Museum writes, "His images convey our human shortcomings as well as our national ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance and common decency in ways that nobody could understand. He has become an American institution. Steven Spielberg recently said, 'Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.' It is a morality based on popular values and patriotism, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil." (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, p. 26) As in all of Rockwell's greatest works, The Rookie (Red Sox Locker Room) depicts a distinctly American cultural phenomenon while also reflecting universal values. Today, it remains as appealing and heartwarming to contemporary viewers as it did when it was first painted.
"If his .406 season stands today as the young Williams's historic masterpiece-a grand achievement of callow youth-- then 1957 would become his classic in the gloaming, a dazzling reassertion of pure hitting skill that was in many ways more remarkable than his 1941 feat."
-B. Bradlee, Jr., The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams
"America was made up of hundreds of ethnic and local subcultures. Because it lacked homogenous, universally shared traditions, it had to invent some. So it came up with Thanksgiving, baseball--and Norman Rockwell."
-Deborah Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell "was homelier than apple pie, more American than the flag, gentler and more affirmative than Dad."
-Robert Hughes, American Visions
"Although Rockwell had painted portraits of movie stars and presidential candidates, never before had he portrayed celebrity in such equivocal terms."
-V. Mecklenburg, Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg
"The truth is that every genre produces its share of marvels and masterpieces, works that endure from one generation to the next...Rockwell's work has manifested far more staying power than that of countless abstract painters who were hailed in their lifetime, and one suspects it is here for the ages."
-Deborah Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell
"The recent 'Rockwell revival' has been made possible in part by the eclipsing of abstract expressionism by postmodernism, which has brought figural painting back into vogue. But it has also been made possible by a set of complex aesthetic, cultural, and social changes that have partially freed Rockwell from his role as a totem figure for Kitsch."
-Richard Halperin, Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence