Al Rosen, the Cleveland Indians’ third baseman who is perhaps best known for fatefully missing the batting Triple Crown by a single point, but who was more significantly known to Jewish fans across the country as the Hebrew Hammer, died Friday at 91. Rosen’s baseball prowess was well-known—he was named Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player in 1953—but his career was brief. Plagued by injuries, he retired several seasons later in 1956, without much of a fight from the team’s front office, which at that point included Hank Greenberg, the legendary Jewish hitter to whom Rosen was often compared.
But Rosen—and his tragic hero story—continues to loom large in Jewish sports circles (he earned a spot in Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, the 2012 volume edited by Franklin Foer and former Scroll editor Marc Tracy). Bethlehem Shoals profiled Rosen in 2011, when the former player and front office executive was 87. Shoals called Rosen a “what-if-what-if” in a game that “reserves a special place in its heart for the what-ifs.” He wrote: “Caught in limbo, he fails to generate the same mystique: He is too accomplished to mourn yet not accomplished enough to become a legend.”
No one was more the unlikely nature of his playing career than Rosen. He told Shoals of his first job, a 1942 walk-on gig in Thomasville, N.C.: “I wanted to play baseball, and Thomasville needed a third baseman. I made $75 a month. I was happy, I was young, energetic, I loved every minute of it.”
Still, as a Jewish baseball player in the 1950s, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism.
The newly arrived black baseball players may have made for bigger targets in the early 1950s—Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—but Jews were by no means off the hook. When it came to voices from the crowd, Rosen never let his anger show. “You’d hear things from the stands after you would make a bad play or struck out,” he told me. “I had the feeling that anybody who felt as badly as I did could say anything they wanted.”
He responded to anti-Semitic antagonism from fellow players differently. “I always felt that it was much better to ignore it until the point came when you really had to speak up, or else your entire reputation would be damaged. Then, I would assert myself.”
Related: Hammer Time: Al Rosen
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.