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Rockwell directed him to put the glove and suitcase in his left hand so he could extend a hand to the jaded vets lounging in the faux locker room. But, Sherm says, "there was something he didn't like." And on Nov. 1, Rockwell called him back to the studio. The painting was slated for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in March, when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, and perhaps the artist realized that the rookie in his painting would have been too abashed to be so forward and outgoing, especially when confronted by the predatory glare that Rockwell fixed on Ted Williams's uninviting mug. In the final drawing, Rockwell stationed Red Sox infielder Billy Goodman (photographed separately) behind the Rookie, hand to his mouth in an attempt to stifle the grin provoked by the interloping rube.
The cover hit the newsstand on March 2, 1957; the Red Sox were in spring training in Sarasota. Sully noted how faithfully Rockwell had replicated their locker room—minus his aloha shirt. Rockwell got everything right but the shoes (Jensen is wearing street shoes with his uniform) and Ted Williams. "Looks awful, doesn't it?" Frank says.
Certainly, it didn't look anything like Ted Williams. But the title character in The Rookie looks very familiar. In fact, he looks just as Mickey Mantle did when he showed up in the Yankees' locker room in 1951, carrying a straw suitcase and, in the recollection of the late Hank Bauer, "wearing hush-puppy shoes and white sweat socks all rolled up." Like Rockwell's Rookie, he was met by a superstar's baleful glare. Joe DiMaggio was not happy to make Mantle's acquaintance. And like the face of Rockwell's Rookie, Mantle's was unclouded by doubt and freckled with possibility. "That face was special," Sully says. "You've never seen another face like that."
There is no allusion to Mantle in the archives at the Norman Rockwell Museum. But Rockwell, who grew up rooting for the Dodgers, was no doubt aware of Mantle's ineffable smile. By the spring of 1957, Mantle had become an American archetype. His image and his myth had become part of our collective consciousness. Perhaps that explains why The Rookie, one of Rockwell's 321 covers for The Saturday Evening Post, remains one of his most ubiquitous and merchandised illustrations. Frank has a Rookie magnet; Sherm's boss saw The Rookie on a wallpaper border at a home-improvement megastore.
The Rookie can be put together in a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle or assembled from a 500-piece puzzle in a tin. The Rookie adorns a 100% silk tie sold at the museum in Stockbridge and a 4¼-inch collectible plate sold at the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont in Rutland. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston sells a Rockwell Rookie Single Coaster for $5.95, a mouse pad for $18.95 and a key chain for $2.99, which is currently out of stock. The Boston museum is where Sully, the sole surviving ballplayer on Rockwell's canvas, saw the original painting in 2005, when he attended his first major league baseball game since the Minnesota Twins put him out to pasture in 1963. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame three years later.
Sully faced Mantle for the final time in the summer of 1962, after he was released by the Phillies and signed by the Twins, his third and last stop in the majors. Frank walked him, just as he had the first time they met. Frank was "in the twilight of a mediocre career"—a line he says he stole from the well-traveled utility infielder Rocky Bridges. Soon Mantle, too, would be in decline. After '64 he no longer had "it in his body to be great," as Stengel once put it. Mantle told me he should have quit after '65, but he played another three years because he didn't know how to do anything else, and the Yankees didn't know what to do without him.
Frank moved to Hawaii in order to get as far away from baseball as possible. If he had to dig ditches for a living, he says, he didn't want anyone he knew to see him doing it. He also didn't want to be "just another stupid jock hanging around a game he could no longer play." He worked for companies that built helicopter pads and golf courses on Kauai; he became a golf pro and sailed boats through the seven seas; he wrote a damn good book called Life Is More Than 9 Innings—a lesson Mantle didn't learn until it was too late.
Mickey's star burned hot and bright, and burned out too soon; Frank's still twinkles. Mantle became a legend; Sully survived. "I'm glad you're alive," I told him, still repentant after we'd gotten to know each other better.
"And I'm glad you're alive," he replied, which was generous, considering that I'd inadvertently killed him off in my book.
"If I knew I was going to live so long, I would've taken better care of myself," Mantle liked to say, a throwaway line he delivered often while throwing his life away.