The Mystery of Norman Rockwell’s Painting, “The Three Umpires”

“The Three Umpires” was painted by Norman Rockwell for the April 23, 1949, cover for The Saturday Evening Post. It is a timeless favorite of Rockwell collectors and baseball fans alike, a true classic for the ages. This painting was Rockwell’s second of five covers for The Post in 1949. This was also the 259th illustration Rockwell painted for the cover of The Post.

It is a classic, showing three photogenic umpires Larry Goetz, John “Beans” Reardon (the home plate umpire with the body protector), and Lou Jorda. The painting is also known as “Tough Call,” “Game Called Because of Rain,” and “Bottom of the Sixth.” The original painting is in the collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Reardon, the head umpire for this game, reportedly refused to advise Rockwell about the weather or the game.

At this point in his career, Norman Rockwell worked almost exclusively from photographs. During the 1948 baseball season, Rockwell visited Ebbets Field with a photographer who took reference photos of the umpires, some players, and the ballpark. Rockwell then completed the painting in California over the winter. Rockwell also visited Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh outfielder, to study details of his Pirate’s uniform.

From the existing reference photos, the painting appears to be from the first game of a Dodgers-Pirates doubleheader Rockwell attended on Tuesday, September 14; although it’s actually more likely a conflation of events from the games played on September 13 and 14. The scoreboard lists an upcoming Wednesday doubleheader against the Cincinnati, to be played on September 15.

There’s also confusion because not all details match the actual events of September 14: The Pirates didn’t have a 1-0 lead in either game of the doubleheader; and Johnny Hopp played first base in both games, not centerfield.

Close scrutiny reveals more details found in the painting:

• The three starting outfielders for the 1948 Pirates are visible in the distance: center fielder Johnny Hopp, left fielder Ralph Kiner, and right fielder Dixie Walker. They can be identified from the reference photos used by Rockwell.

• On the scoreboard, part of the Brooklyn batting order is visible, and the batter is number 20.

• The line score shows Pittsburgh with a single run, scored in the top of the second inning.

The painting depicts the three umpires standing in the middle of the ball diamond during a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates deliberating over whether to continue the game in the midst of uncertain weather conditions. They are somberly gazing at the sky, trying to determine whether the rain which has stopped the game is sufficient to have the game called.

The game is being played at Ebbets Field. This can be confirmed because the Dodgers are at the bottom position on the scoreboard and the advertisement at the bottom of the scoreboard is Abe Stark’s memorable offer of a free suit at his clothing store if a batter can hit the sign.

Mostly hidden behind the umpires is Clyde Sukeforth, a Dodger coach, smiling broadly pointing to the sky where he apparently thinks there is a patch of blue showing through. Bill Meyer, the Pirates manager, is grimacing and undoubtedly believing that the game should be called on account of rain. (It is interesting that Rockwell chose Sukeforth to be on the field with the Pirates manager. Sukeforth only managed the Dodgers for two games to start the 1947 season. Leo Durocher managed the Dodgers until July 16, 1948, replaced by Burt Shotten. Sukeforth might have temporarily taken over the Dodger reins if Durocher or Shotten had earlier been tossed from the game.)

Since five innings are in the books and the Pittsburgh Pirates are leading in the middle of the sixth inning, the Pirates would be declared the winner if the game was called at this point. If that’s so, why does Sukeforth—the Brooklyn coach—look happy, while Meyer—the Pittsburgh manager—appear unhappy?

Did Rockwell just take “poetic license” and choose to depict a fictional scene? Was he more interested in eliciting “baseball emotions” from his viewers rather than the accurate details of one particular game? Or perhaps he was unfamiliar with the “fine points” of the rules governing rain shortened games and wasn’t completely aware of what he painted? I prefer to believe the former.

We will probably never know the answer to that question. Dan Busby wrote a letter to Norman Rockwell, inquiring about the mysteries of the painting. As reflected in his kind response to Busby, either Rockwell didn’t remember the details or perhaps did not want to get involved in the questions about the painting.

Researchers have indicated that this painting and three others submitted to The Post were altered after submission. Yes, unbelievable as it seems, The Post editor commissioned another artist, William H. Rapp, to change parts of this and three other Rockwell paintings!

The main change that was made is the upper right-hand corner. Rockwell painted the dark clouds from the upper left side to be extending across the entire top of the painting.

Rockwell, of course, was not happy, to say the least. He complained to Post art editor Ken Stuart that the painting was better as he conceived and painted it. After Rockwell’s notice that he was unsure whether he wanted to continue creating covers that might be repainted, smarter heads prevailed in The Post management. The Post wisely changed its policy about altering submitted artworks.

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