How Norman Rockwell drafted his "Rookie"

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. -- A Norman Rockwell painting called "The Rookie" sold at auction Thursday for $22.5 million. Rockwell died in 1978, but the rookie is still around.

Sherman Safford's moment of immortality began in his high school lunch line.

Sherman Safford CBS News

"I was hungry, it was noon time, I went down to the cafeteria, and sitting next to a friend of mine was a fellow smoking a pipe," he recalls. "He had to be somebody -- nobody smoked in that building!"

That pipe-smoking fellow was Norman Rockwell, the artist famous for celebrating small-town America.

He was finishing an oil painting for a 1957 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The topic: baseball. The scene: the arrival of a young rookie in the Boston Red Sox locker room.

The players were all real, but Rockwell needed a cheerful nobody.

He plucked Safford out of that cafeteria in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and paid him $120 to play the hayseed.

"I think he saw a raw-boned kid, a young kid that was athletic, skinny -- the hair is what grabbed his attention right off the bat," Safford says. "It was pretty shuckey. I mean, he put a hat on me because it looked so bad."

Rockwell often based his paintings on photographs, a technique he talked about with Edward R. Murrow on the CBS broadcast "Person to Person."

Norman Rockwell used photos to create his paintings.

CBS News found Rockwell's photographs from his shoot with Safford sitting in the archives at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Safford's suitcase was a picnic basket he borrowed from his mother. The glove he borrowed from a buddy, the bat he made in woodshop. The result was a home run.

Norman Rockwell's "The Rookie" depicts the arrival of a young rookie in the Boston Red Sox locker room.

"The Rookie" is just one of the 323 covers Rockwell painted for the Saturday Evening Post. But during his lifetime, he rarely got the kind of recognition auction houses are giving him now.

Another of Rockwell's popular covers, "Saying Grace," recently sold at Sotheby's for $46 million.

"He has stamped his image of America everywhere," Safford says. "And I'm part of that, and that is just too cool."

Safford doesn't know where he'll be hanging next, but he knows that moment all those years ago, for him, is still priceless.