Rockwell's ‘Rookie' returns
It wasn't, said former city resident Sherman Safford, an enormous life-changing experience. But, Safford conceded, he still delights more than 50 years later in surprising new friends and acquaintances by pulling out his copy of the March 1957 Saturday Evening Post.
He then proudly displays the magazine cover that in illustration form shows Safford in the spring training locker room of the Boston Red Sox in Sarasota, Fla., greeting the likes of Ted Williams, Frank Sullivan, Sammy White and Billy Goodman.
He is, of course, "The Rookie," and the illustration of the then 17-year-old Safford was authored by no less of a Berkshire County icon than Norman Rockwell. Safford, 70, now living in the Rochester, N.Y., area, married a Pittsfield girl, Judy Nardin, and the two will celebrate 50 years of marriage in July.
The Saffords do visit Pittsfield a couple of times each year, but the former Pittsfield High basketball and baseball player, who graduated in 1957, hasn't seen Wahconah Park in 47 years. That will all change Friday night when Safford and some local friends will watch the Pittsfield Defenders.
He is looking forward to it. "I'll see some people that I haven't seen in 50 years," said Safford about his visit.
Safford was having lunch at PHS and Rockwell was in the cafeteria and on the prowl. The legendary illustrator had a vision for the Post baseball spring training cover, but he needed someone to play the "hayseed" whose wide-eyed role in the painting was to introduce himself to the Red Sox veterans in the clubhouse.
"I got into line for lunch and walked right past him [Rockwell]," Safford recalled. "Then I got lunch and walked past him again on the way back to my table. A friend, Dave Farrell, came over to me and told me that the guy with the long thin pipe was Norman Rockwell, and that he wanted to see me when I was done with lunch. He was a very distinctive-looking character.
"I knew who Mr. Rockwell was and immediately pushed the tray away and said ‘to heck with lunch.' If Norman Rockwell wanted to talk to me, then I wanted to talk to him."
Rockwell told Safford about his idea for the magazine cover and how he thought the tall and lanky 17-year-old was a perfect candidate to play "The Rookie."
"He asked me if I knew where his studio was in Stockbridge, which I did," Safford said. He said to be there on that next Saturday at 10 a.m. I actually posed twice for him and received $60 each time.
"I used that money to play for my car insurance, but I wished I had kept those checks as keepsakes."
Safford said he had a chance to talk with Rockwell at length on those two Saturday mornings.
"People don't always know that he worked a lot from photographs," Safford said. "He went to Sarasota and also took pictures of that locker room."
Being selected by Rockwell, said Safford, was "an amazing moment."
Added Safford, "They say we all get 15 minutes in the sun. To have been picked from the entire school was truly a wonderful occurrence."
Safford was in the military and stationed at Aberdeen in Maryland when the magazine hit the streets in the spring of 1957. His mother called him, and Safford made a dash for the local newsstand, where he bought up all the Saturday Evening Post's that were for sale.
"I sprinted down three flights of stairs and nearly knocked my platoon sergeant off the steps when I finally got out the door," Safford said. "The next day, in formation, my commanding officer came up behind me and asked if I could later sign a copy of the magazine."
At Pittsfield High, Safford, who was 6-foot-4, played basketball for Art Fox and jayvee basketball and baseball for Ed Hickey. He could "jump like a kangaroo," and could easily stuff the ball through the hoop one-handed.
"I did that in a game in North Adams, and the place became real quiet real quick," Safford said.
In his early 20s, he followed his parents to Syracuse, N.Y., and eventually to Rochester, where he and Judy have lived since. He began his life's journey in the Los Angeles area but came east when his father was transferred to GE ordinance. Those first few winters, he said, brought him to his knees.
"But, Pittsfield taught me what roots really are," he said.
And a guy named Rockwell taught him that life sometimes can be pretty unpredictable. "The Rookie," in fact, has been exhibited at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Amazing," Safford said. "I made it to Cooperstown before a lot of my baseball heroes did."
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