Former Red Sox pitcher Frank Sullivan (right) and Sherman Safford pose with the famous Norman Rockwell painting, “The Rookie.” That’s Sullivan, sitting on the bench and wearing No. 18. Safford is the “rookie” getting the once-over from Ted Williams. (NPR.org photo)
Unless you are a Red Sox fan of a certain age, the name “Frank Sullivan” might not mean a great deal to you. But chances are that you’ve seen the face, even though you don’t know the name.
Sullivan pitched for the Sox in the ‘50s and had a nice run, winning 13 games or more in five consecutive seasons (1954-58). He was an All-Star in back-to-back seasons (1955-56), taking the loss in the ’55 game when he gave up a walkoff home run to Stan Musial in the 12th inning in Milwaukee’s County Stadium.
At 6-foot-7, Sullivan was the tallest pitcher the Sox had ever had. Boston writers dubbed him the “Boston Skyscraper,” and with 90 career wins, he had more wins than any of the nine Sox pitchers 6-foot-7 or taller that followed him. In 2008, he was elected to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.
But Sullivan made a far greater impact in the art world than he did on the ballfield. He served as one of the models for the iconic Norman Rockwell magazine cover, “The Rookie,” that graced the Saturday Evening Post on March 2, 1957.
On an off-day the previous August, the club had asked Sullivan and teammates Jackie Jensen and Sammy White, Sullivan’s roommate and close friend, to drive to Stockbridge, Mass., in the western part of the state.
“Jackie drove both ways, it took about three hours on both ends because there was no turnpike,” Sullivan told writer Brian Sullivan in a story published by the Berkshire Eagle in 2014. “Sammy and I both sat in the back seat and we bugged Jackie the entire way about the fact we had no beer for the ride. To this day I have no idea how the three of us were selected. In those days you just did what the organization told you to do.’’
Sullivan thought he was just taking part in a photo shoot.
“When we got there we were greeted warmly by a small, slim man, whose name meant nothing to me,’’ he told his biographer and friend, Herb Crehan. “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.”
Sullivan recalled Rockwell as being almost “too nice.’’
“Rockwell was very polite,’’ he told the Eagle. “He bought us lunch somewhere in downtown Stockbridge. We went back to the studio and he started moving us around. Finally, it was Sammy who said to him to please stop saying ‘please’ every time he asked us to do something.
“Sammy told him that we were just ballplayers and it was fine to simply tell us what he wanted and we would do it. I think [Sammy] just wanted to do what we had to do and get back home.”
The “rookie” in the painting was Sherman Safford, a local kid from Pittsfield that Rockwell found in a high school cafeteria and satisfied the artist’s quest for a fresh-faced innocent walking into his first big-league camp.
Five Sox players in all are depicted in the painting. Ted Williams and Billy Goodman are included, but did not model for Rockwell. Sullivan posed as Williams, with Rockwell painting the face of the Hall of Famer on Sullivan’s body.
In 2005, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibited the original painting; Sullivan and his wife, Marilyn, flew from their home in Kauai to take part in festivities at the museum.
Nine years later, the private collector who owned the painting put it up for auction; it sold for $22.5 million. In 1986, it had sold for just over $600,000.
On Tuesday, Frank Sullivan died in Lihue, Hawaii, due to complications from pneumonia. He was four days shy of his 86th birthday.
“I guess as long as that painting is around,’’ the ballplayer said in that 2014 interview, “Frank Sullivan will never die. I don’t have an ego that needs that kind of support, but I appreciate the publicity that’s come with it.”