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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: December 3, 2021 3:07 pm PDT
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STOCKBRIDGE, MA. – One of the great delights of baseball is that it is as American as apple pie and a Norman Rockwell painting.

To prove that point, Baseball or Bust visited The Norman Rockwell Museum last week to get a behind the scenes look and explanation of Mr. Rockwell’s love for America and his love for baseball.

“Mr. Rockwell was a big Red Sox fan and listened to the Red Sox games on the radio,’’ Dan Carubia, a docent at the museum told BallNine in our visit that also took us down Main Street and to the iconic Red Lion Inn, which stands a few doors down from Mr. Rockwell’s original studio, when he moved to Stockbridge in 1953 from Arlington, Vermont.

The Red Lion Inn opened in 1773 as a stagecoach stop in the Berkshires. Catty-corner from the Inn on Rt. 7 South Street is Mr. Rockwell’s original home, a private residence now. The Inn is a short walk from where Mr. Rockwell’s paintings were first displayed in town, his first museum, known as the Old Corner House on Elm & Main. The original Town Hall, featured in the painting “Marriage License’’ is there on Main Street, too.

The Norman Rockwell Museum designed by legendary architect Robert A.M. Stern is about one mile away off Route 183.

Carubia, 74, knows Norman Rockwell and knows baseball, he has been an usher behind home plate with the Tri-City Valley Cats for the last 14 years, a Mets fan for life and his love for the game comes through whenever he talks baseball.

Combining the two is pure poetry and joy.

Portrait of American artist Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978), a pipe in his mouth, as he poses in his studio, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, September 10, 1975. (Photo by Ed Eckstein/Getty Images)

“How does Mr. Rockwell tell you these kids are going to be great friends?’’ Carubia asked. “A catcher’s mitt and a fielder’s mitt, pitcher, catcher, teammates.”

Notice how Carubia refers to Norman Rockwell as “Mr. Rockwell.’’

The docents at the museum never refer to him as Norman or Norm or Rockwell. It is always “Mr. Rockwell’’ as a sign of respect. Baseball or Bust will do the same.

“He was just an ordinary guy,’’ Carubia said of Mr. Rockwell, who died here at his home in 1978 at the age of 84. “The townspeople called him – not an artist, they called him – the painter. He would just hang out in the lobby of the Red Lion Inn and sketch people coming in and going out. He knew the night clerk here very well.’’

More on that later.

As for his studio?

“Like any other studio that Mr. Rockwell had, it looked north, natural light,’’ Carubia explained as he stood on the sidewalk in front of the white building with the huge picture window on the second-floor studio above what is now a cafe.

“What you see here is what Mr. Rockwell saw,’’ Carubia said. “His covers were very famous on the Saturday Evening Post and he was well known, and they said, ‘Open up a museum.’ They called it The Old Corner House. Think about this: “Boy with Baby Carriage”,  his first painting, “The Four Freedoms,’’ and a lot of paintings that he did prior to 1960 were in The Old Corner House.’’

In that first cover for the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, baseball was strongly represented. Mr. Rockwell was 22 years old.

The current Norman Rockwell Museum sits on 35 gorgeous acres and was built in 1993. Located in a corner of one of the rooms in the museum is a full-length painting of Brooks Robinson signing an autograph, all decked out in his Orioles uniform.

“It’s the only baseball painting that Mr. Rockwell did that’s of one baseball player,’’ Carubia explained. “And if you notice, Brooks Robinson is signing his autograph left-handed. People say, ‘It’s wrong.’ No, he was left-handed.’’

The third baseman was named to 18 All-Star teams, won 16 Gold Gloves and was the 1964 AL MVP. In 1970 Robinson was named the World Series MVP. As the Hall of Famer once explained of being left-handed, “It helped me get my glove in the right spot. I eat left-handed. I write left-handed. Ping-pong, tennis, shoot a rifle left-handed. So, I do everything left-handed except play baseball. Threw right and hit right.’’

The detail in the painting is incredible.

“Look at the hair on his hand there,’’ Carubia said. “The detail on the bats. The Rawlings glove.’’

Featured in the work as fans are Mr. Rockwell’s photographer, and the photographer’s son and daughter. Mr. Rockwell would use a photographer to help in all his paintings, taking many photos to get just the right poses he needed. He also inserted himself into this painting like he did in many of his works.

Norman Rockwell was born in New York City and eventually the family moved to New Rochelle, an artist’s colony at the time. But his young years were spent in the bedlam of New York City, which is one of the reasons he escaped to the peace and quiet of country, moving to Arlington, Vermont in 1939.

“At night their father would read Charles Dickens to them,’’ Carubia said. “As a young kid, Mr. Rockwell would ask his dad to slow down and stop, ‘So I can sketch what you are reading.’ ’’

America’s artist was born.

“At 12 years old he started doing illustrations for a local periodical,’’ Carubia said.

Mr. Rockwell went to the New York School of Art and studied at the Art Students League and eventually became friends with J.C. Leyendecker, the premier illustrator in the United States.

“Mr. Leyendecker did 324 covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Mr. Rockwell did 323,’’ Carubia explained.

It was a friend of Leyendecker who invited Mr. Rockwell to the West Coast after Mr. Rockwell’s first marriage ended in divorce after six years. On the West Coast he met socialite Mary Barstow and soon got married. They had three children: Jarvis, Peter and Tom.

In 1943 there was a fire in his Arlington studio and much was lost,  but luckily The Four Freedoms had just been moved out to go on a 16-city tour.

At the Norman Rockwell Museum, which fittingly sits on a hill, there is a pathway that leads to his red carriage barn studio that was moved in two sections to the property in 1986, the same year, Carubia noted, the Mets last won the World Series. As you walk through the museum one of the first paintings you come across is that very first painting he did for the Saturday Evening Post, “Boy with Baby Carriage’’ that was done in 1916. Two boys dressed in baseball uniforms, caps and a glove visible, see a friend, dressed in a suit pushing a baby carriage.

Mr. and Mrs. AMBS with Norman Rockwell studio in background. (Photo: Dan Carubia)

“If you look at this painting, for the first couple of years, a lot of the paintings had no background,’’ Carubia said.

That was because of printing limitations at the time.

“Mr. Rockwell is a storyteller with a paint brush, common-place people with common-place situations,’’ Carubia noted. “Look at the faces, maybe the boy in suit is coming out of church and he is wheeling his baby sister, she has pink on her shoes and he’s got her baby bottle in his pocket.

“He is walking down the street and then he sees his friends coming the other way. His face tells the story, now he starts to walk real fast, look at the string on his hat, it is blowing in the wind, this boy over here, what is his face telling you, ‘You’re in a suit and we are going to play baseball!’

“Look at the detail in the carriage, oil on canvas,’’ Carubia said. “Mr. Rockwell brings you into a painting, puts you into a painting and takes you out of it.’’

Mr. Rockwell used local residents from Arlington and Stockbridge for his paintings, creating goodwill and pride throughout the community and finding just the right look he needed and then coaxing the perfect expressions from his everyday life models.

On the opposite wall is the “Marriage License,’’ if you look closely, you see the shadow of the clock on the wall just before Town Hall closes. The calendar has already been ripped to Saturday, so this is late in the day Friday. The clerk has a look on his face like “I want to get out of here’’ and the flag is on the shelf, already taken down for the day.

As for the Saturday on the calendar, remember, it’s the Saturday Evening Post and the actual Post came out that day.

“This man,’’ Carubia said of the clerk, “was a friend of Mr. Rockwell’s. He had lost his wife three months earlier and Mr. Rockwell lost his (second) wife about a year earlier. Mr. Rockwell said, ‘Do you want to be in the painting?’’’

Docent Dan Carubia explaining the finer points of “Marriage License.” (Photo: Kevin Kernan)

Mr. Rockwell would marry for a third time in 1961, marrying Molly Punderson, a retired English teacher. He met her at a poetry reading and she encouraged him to delve more into social issues of the day in his paintings and Mr. Rockwell did that for Look Magazine.

There are many Mr. Rockwell baseball paintings, including “The Dugout,’’ which first depicted the Cubs as lovable losers; “The Rookie,’’ which featured a local high school student from nearby Pittsfield named Sherman Safford, a painting that sold for $22.5 million in 2014; “The Bottom of the Sixth,’’ the most famous of Mr. Rockwell’s baseball covers that features home plate umpire Beans Reardon and has been displayed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, but it is also fascinating to see the subtle role baseball played in a number of his other works.

In many ways, baseball represented community.

In his 1967 painting “New Kids in the Neighborhood’’ which was the story illustration for Jack Star’s Look article “Negro in the Suburbs’’, baseball plays a prominent role. A Black family has moved into the neighborhood and the brother and the sister are in their driveway next to a moving van being given the once over by three children who live on the block. The older newcomer brother is holding a catcher’s mitt behind his back. One of the two boys staring at him is in a baseball uniform while the other is holding a fielder’s glove in front of him.

“How does Mr. Rockwell tell you these kids are going to be great friends?’’ Carubia asked. “A catcher’s mitt and a fielder’s mitt, pitcher, catcher, teammates. Both have the same sweatshirts, just different colors. Both have animals. Both of the girls have pink on.’’

And remember the night clerk at the Red Lion Inn who was friends with Mr. Rockwell? The young man in the picture portraying the brother was named Wray Gunn, who was nine at the time, and the night clerk was his grandfather. The girl standing in front of Gunn and to his right was Gunn’s six-year-old cousin, Tracey.

In “Bottom of the Sixth’’ three umpires are looking up into the sky as rain falls while there is an animated conversation going on behind them. It’s the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers.

``Bottom of the Sixth``. (Photo: Kevin Kernan)

“According to research Ralph Branca was probably the pitcher that day,’’ Carubia said of the day Mr. Rockwell visited Ebbets Field with his photographer to come up with the particulars for the painting.

Baseball represents freedom as well. Freedom of play. Freedom of expression. America’s game. Mr. Rockwell’s most famous combined work is “The Four Freedoms.’’

It is good to remember what those Four Freedoms represent even these days. They were inspired by a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech to Congress during World War II. The Four Freedoms were shown in four consecutive issues of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 with essays from contemporary writers. They were Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear.

In the center room of the museum the Four Freedoms are featured. It took 11 months for Mr. Rockwell to complete the four paintings and they were an inspiring success, raising more than $132 million in War Bonds.

Mr. Rockwell once said of his work: “I paint life as I would like it to be.’’

President Roosevelt complimented Mr. Rockwell, saying, “I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizens the plain every day truths behind the Four Freedoms.’’

In “Freedom From Fear”, with the parents standing watch above their two sleeping children, Carubia said the mother of the girl in the painting suggested adding a doll to the painting. Mr. Rockwell agreed.

“What’s the story of the doll being on the floor in that painting,’’ Carubia explained. “The painting is called Freedom from Fear, the only thing fearful is the newspaper. If it was a fearful painting, she’d be holding the doll.’’

The museum is located on what was known as the Linwood Estate. Dr. Franklin Story Musgrave, 86, grew up on what was then a dairy farm, climbing apple trees and looking up into the stars at night. He later joined the Marines, earned a high school diploma and then six degrees. He went from engine mechanic to learning to fly, accumulating 18,000 hours in over 160 aircraft and would become a NASA astronaut flying six missions in space, including being the lead spacewalker on the repair of the Hubble Spaceship.

In later years, Mr. Rockwell was fond of painting presidential portraits and astronauts and painted the moon landing, called “The Final Impossibility: Man’s Tracks on the Moon.’’

Carubia was at the museum, working in the studio late in the day about four years ago when Dr. Musgrave walked into the studio. Carubia immediately recognized him. The two men spoke for hours. Dr. Musgrave and Carubia became friends. Dr. Musgrave presented Carubia with his biography recently when Carubia visited Musgrave’s home in Florida and signed it to Carubia’s granddaughter Lili.

“This all happened because I work here,’’ Carubia said with a smile as he overlooked the studio which remains just as Mr. Rockwell left it, including the frequently called phone numbers written on the back wall and the radio on the shelf that played all those Red Sox games.

Imagine all that occurring in one special place. These are Mr. Rockwell’s paintings, America, baseball, astronauts and, of course, even some apple pie over at the cafeteria style outdoor Runaway Café near the back of the museum.

Enjoy it all.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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