This Early Version of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Tough Call’ Features Blue Sky and Sports Equipment Brand Names

Artist famously took readers out to the 1948 Ebbets Field ball game

An absolutely fascinating bit of magazine-cover history is on the auction block this weekend in Dallas. It’s a reminder of the days when artist Norman Rockwell would create and finalize the elements of his iconic work for The Saturday Evening Post by means of oil paintings.

Heritage Auctions expects one such painting done for a celebrated April 23, 1949 Saturday Evening Post cover titled “Tough Call” will fetch around half a million dollars. The final cover, which hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame and depicts umpires Larry Goetz, John “Beans” Reardon and Lou Jorda, has been traced to a Sept.14 1948 double header at Ebbets Field between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

In the painting, pictured above, the sky is comically blue, a brilliant contrast to the umpires’ consideration of possible rain. The artist would tweak the sky in subsequent draft versions, but the final cover image did not entirely reflect this process. Instead of the dark grey clouds finally chosen by Rockwell, the April 23, 1949 cover, altered by hired artist-hand William H. Rapp, featured lightened white and grey clouds, some blue sky, a darkened uniform for Pirates manager Billy Meyer (shown in the background, right) and brand names erased from pictured sports equipment.

This was in fact the fourth 1948-49 Saturday Evening Post cover altered without Rockwell’s involvement. The artist fired off an angry letter to editor Ken Stuart, prompting a change. From then on, Stuart would consult with editor in chief Ben Hibbs and managing editor Robert Fuoss, and then discuss any possible changes to covers with Rockwell.

Forbes contributor David Seideman has a nice piece about the ownership background of the oil painting, which hung for years in an Austin, Texas residence. He also reveals a deep personal connection to the work:

I grew up with this image. In our attic, my father stored a copy of the Post cover which he inherited from his stepfather whom I’m named after. As a little boy, the image transfixed and haunted me. The ghoulish baseball managers arguing beneath the eerie storm clouds frightened me almost as much the witch scenes in Snow White and The Wizard of Oz.

At the recent National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago I had the privilege of inspecting Rockwell’s study in person at the Heritage booth. I did an absolute double take even before I learned about the backstory.

Seideman has been writing about the sports collectibles industry for decades. We will update this item with the final auction price paid for the item, part of a larger Aug. 19-20 Summer Platinum Night Sports Auction. By the way, Rockwell would have had a field day with the URL for Heritage Auctions – it’s ha.com.

Update (Aug. 21):
The “Last Call” painting sold for $1,680,000, besting Heritage Auctions’ previous Norman Rockwell study mark of $1,332,500, set in March for “Triple Self-Portrait.”

Previously on Fishbowl:
Sotheby’s Set to Auction Bonus Norman Rockwell Cover
Norman Rockwell Illustration Squeaks on to Top Ten Art Auctions List
A Daughter Inherits The Saturday Evening Post

Images courtesy: Heritage Auctions