Sullivan captures Rockwell moment
It's a sweetheart of a picture, another cliche elevated by Norman Rockwell. ''The Rookie" appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post on March 2, 1957, and became an instant classic. Five Red Sox players are in it. Frank Sullivan was one, and he's got a story to tell.
Sullivan pitched in the majors for 11 years, eight for the Sox (1953-60). He won more than he lost here before brief stints with Philadelphia and Minnesota took his record below .500 (97-100). He is a lovely giant of a man -- 6 feet 7 inches in his playing days, when he was the tallest pitcher in the American League. He's lost an inch to age, but his huge hands are steady and he still moves with the easy elegance of an athlete.
He was at the Red Sox exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts yesterday to view the famous painting for the first time. In it, he sits on a bench behind right fielder Jackie Jensen, his arm across Jensen's shoulder in a pose of effortless locker room intimacy. Standing above Jensen is a version of Ted Williams.
Williams did not condescend to sit for the painting but allowed his likeness to be used. Rockwell employed Sullivan's body, then painted an inexplicably poor version of the Williams predator profile. In the left foreground is catcher Sammy White, Sullivan's traveling roommate for all eight years with the Sox. At the far right stands second baseman Billy Goodman. At the rear left stands ''John J. Anonymous," so named by Rockwell for all the forgettables who squeaked into the majors.
All eyes are on the rookie, who in real life was a gifted Pittsfield high school player named Sherman Safford. Like Goodman, Safford was photographed separately. He's reportedly living somewhere near Rochester. All the rest, save Sullivan, are dead.
Rockwell's rookie is the definitive rookie -- big, raw-boned, bursting through cheap clothes with the sunny optimism of a black Lab. He's the ingenue who has yet to receive big league heat high and inside at the plate.
''The Rookie" is a sumptuous composition of people and attitude spread across the horizontals of a bench and the verticals of lockers and a pole. Like so many of Rockwell's paintings, it's more complicated than it first appears. (Sullivan called it a fine rendition of the Sox locker room at spring training in Sarasota, Fla.) Williams awards the rookie a murderous appraisal that has ''road kill" written all over it. Jensen, who mysteriously is putting on his street shoes, is softer. The rest simply take this youngster in.
''The more time you spent with Ted, the dumber you got," said Sullivan about Williams, beaming.
He recalled how he and Jensen, White and Goodman got orders from the organization in the summer of 1956 to take their uniforms and get to Stockbridge. They would ruin a rare day off doing so.
''We were just dumb jocks," said Sullivan, now 75, who has ripened nicely on the Hawaiian island of Kauai since he moved there in 1964. ''In those days, you did what you were told. We had no idea who Norman Rockwell was. He didn't mean a damned thing to me. We had no idea where Stockbridge was either. This was a hell of a drive back then -- three hours, anyway. There was no Mass. Pike or anything."
Jensen pulled up with White in the car that morning. (Goodman went out another day.) The trio might as well have been traveling to South Dakota. They arrived at Stockbridge by lunch, where they were greeted by a slip of a man, endlessly polite, with a pipe stationed in his mouth. ''We still didn't have a clue why we were out there," Sullivan said.
After lunch, they went to Rockwell's studio, which boasted a wooden bench. Period. The players put on their uniforms and then sat for Rockwell, who took a lot of pictures of them.
''Mr. Rockwell had one of those old cameras with the cloth over the top," recalled Sullivan. ''He'd tell us where to look. Jackie and I were on the bench. We didn't know what the hell he's thinking. He kept telling us to keep looking up. He took separate pictures of Sammy."
The ballplayers drove back to Boston and promptly forgot the whole experience. ''We didn't think a thing about it until the cover on the Saturday Evening Post came out almost a year later," said Sullivan. ''By then, we understood who Rockwell was."
Monday, Sullivan attended his first major league game since 1963. He was delighted to have been asked for ID when he went for a beer. But then Frank Sullivan is a study in delight. He is utterly comfortable in his own skin. He was a golf pro for years and, amid the palms and Pacific zephyrs, gamboled through a wonderful life with his family.
He was also blessed with an emotional intelligence that allowed him to flatten his ego when his playing days ended. He worked as a boat jockey taking yachts to and from Florida and labored for peanuts at a marine repair dock in Southwest Harbor, Maine, before skedaddling for Kauai.
Why so far away? ''When you're a jock, people do things for you. It's great as long as you can deliver," he explained patiently. ''The minute you can't, it comes to a screeching halt and reality needs to be addressed. I didn't want to go through that around friends here."
Early on, he and White, who also moved to Kauai, gave a baseball clinic for the kids there. One asked him which team he played for. Sullivan told him the Red Sox. ''That's good," he replied to Sullivan. ''I did too."
''Right then," said Sullivan, ''I knew I was far enough away."