Norman Rockwell’s “The Rookie” portrayed Red Sox; sells for $20 million at auction


Norman Rockwell’s painting “The Rookie” fetched $20 million today at a Christie’s auction. Also known as “Red Sox Locker Room,” the work portrays a spring training scene involving Red Sox players Billy Goodman, Frank Sullivan, Jackie Jensen, Sammy White and Ted Williams as they regard the arrival of an eager, wiry teenage prospect. The illustration appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in March of 1957.

Ever the perfectionist, Rockwell’s approach for “The Rookie” involved some careful planning. Via Christie’s:

"Rockwell conceived this cover at least 9 months in advance of its publication date on March 2nd, 1957, just in time for the start of spring training for the Red Sox. Over the summer of 1956, he convinced team management to send four players from the starting lineup up to Rockwell’s hometown, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, deep in Red Sox country. Pitcher Frank Sullivan, right fielder Jackie Jensen, catcher Sammy White all posed for the painting. Williams was either unable or unwilling to make the trip and Rockwell captured his likeness from his trading card, and other photographs."

Rockwell faced his share of critics over the course of his career. His work, particularly his Post covers, was thought to be trite and idealistic in a changing society. With “The Rookie,” it’s not necessarily Rockwell’s fault that the local nine was Tom Yawkey’s all-white Boston Red Sox (the last MLB team to integrate, in 1959).  While the artist tackled more diverse and serious subjects in his career, there are still many fine art critics that disregard his portfolio.

Bet those same critics wish they could paint something worth $20 million.

I love Norman Rockwell’s work and a visit to his museum in Stockbridge, MA is high on my to-do list. My family has a picture book of his work that I often thumbed through growing up. A sentimental sort myself, Rockwell’s choice of the most sentimental of American pastimes, baseball, as the subject of many of his paintings resonated with me. Works like “Game Called Because of Rain” and “Dugout” are iconic looks at the quirks of the game, specifically the psychology of the rain delay and the sullen looks on the faces of Chicago Cubs players and staff that have persisted for decades.

Earlier this month, the piece was featured at the Museum of Fine Arts and two of the surviving subjects of the painting, Frank Sullivan and Sherman Safford — at the time a high school athlete who was depicted as the title character — met at Fenway Park to reflect on the painting and the experience.