Al Rosen died March 13, 2015, at 91. This article was published in 2011.
Baseball reserves a special place in its heart for the what-ifs. They can be white-hot blips like Herb Score, the Cleveland Indians pitcher whose face was shattered by a bullet line drive in 1957 after two dominant seasons in the majors. Or they can take the form of Sandy Koufax, who gave us just enough sustained genius to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that injuries abbreviated one of baseball’s greatest careers.
But then there’s another class of player, the what-if-what-if. Caught in limbo, he fails to generate the same mystique: He is too accomplished to mourn yet not accomplished enough to become a legend. So, as the Major League All-Star game unfolds tonight, let us pay our respects to the almost-legendary Indians slugger Al Rosen, a four-time All-Star and the best Jewish ballplayer between Greenberg and Koufax. “If he had a couple of more good years, maybe one more good year, he would have been a candidate for the Hall of Fame,” Ira Berkow, the longtime New York Times sportswriter, told me. “He was one of the premier, if not the premier, third basemen of his time.”
Rosen, a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested asthmatic who had been an amateur boxer, made his debut with the Indians in 1947. He made five appearances that year; nine the next; and in 1949 saw action in 23 games. By the time Rosen got the chance to play a full season, in 1950, he was already 26.
Rosen had put his career on hold to serve during World War II, which accounts somewhat for his delay in becoming a regular in the Indians line-up. The primary culprit, though, was the lack of free agency and any real union presence—pied piper Marvin Miller (a Jewish labor lawyer from the Bronx) did not come over from the United Steel Workers of America until 1966 to become director of the MLB Players Association—which enabled franchises to hoard players. The Indians were grooming Rosen as All-Star Ken Keltner’s successor at third base and had little interest in seeing him flourish elsewhere. With no leverage, players like Rosen could do little more than wait their turn.
Reached at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Rosen, now 87, is matter-of-fact about his strange career path. “I was a walk-on when I played in Thomasville, North Carolina, in 1942,” he told me. “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.”
But at some point, you get antsy. “I think that, given the chance in 1948, I could have played at the major-league level,” Rosen said. “Definitely in 1949.” The numbers back him up. In 1950, with Keltner finally out of the way, Rosen got his first full season in the majors. He hit .287 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. Perhaps more important, his OPS—a stat favored by sabermetricians that combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage—was .948, the second-highest of his career.
Once Rosen finally got his chance, he almost immediately established himself as one of the best players in the game. From 1950 to 1955, he made four All-Star Games. In 1950 and 1951, Rosen was very good; in 1952 and 1954, he was fantastic; and in 1953, Rosen was sublime, winning the American League’s Most Valuable Player honors and narrowly missing the Triple Crown—he led in home runs (43) and RBIs (145) and came in second to Micky Vernon in batting average by .001. (He also led the league with a 1.034 OPS—an OPS above 1 being considered spectacular.) But injuries struck in 1955, and after the 1956 season, he retired at 32, right when he should have been at the height of his powers.
How good was Al Rosen? Baseball writer Jonah Keri, author of The Extra 2%, made the case to me with the metric called Wins Above Replacement (WARP), which takes a “replacement-level player”—essentially, some hypothetical player a notch or two below average—and, using both batting and fielding stats, measures how superior the actual player is to this imaginary mediocrity in the number of extra wins the actual player would generate over a full season. “How much better was Al Rosen than a replacement-level player?” Keri asked by way of explanation. “In his MVP season, he was more than nine wins better. If you have an 85-win team and you add Al Rosen, instead you have a 94-win team. So, you’ve gone from a pretty good club to a club that has a chance to win the World Series. He had a couple seven-win seasons, which are also tremendously good, and a few seasons just below that.”
Keri added, “If you are a two-win player, you’re a solid starter; if you’re a four-win player, you’re an All-Star; if you’re a six or seven player, you’re considered for the MVP; if you’re nine or more, you’re getting into some Albert Pujols-type seasons.”
Rosen also, of course, became an icon for the Jewish community, earning the nickname “The Hebrew Hammer” (though he chose to inscribe “Flip” on his bats). He also met with his fair share of anti-Semitic taunts. 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.”
Other players, though, were a different story. Rosen didn’t hesitate to challenge, and fight, opponents who tried to make his ethnicity an issue. “There’s a time that you let it be known that enough is enough,” Rosen tells an interviewer in the 2010 documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. “You flatten [them].” He offered a more nuanced picture of anti-Semitism in our conversation: “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.”
The Indians won the pennant in 1954, only to lose the World Series to the New York Giants. That was also the year that Rosen’s injury problems began. He hit .300 with 24 home runs and 124 RBIs—strong numbers, but a marked comedown from the previous year’s heights, the result of having missed 17 games. The fans made their displeasure known, and Rosen’s confidence began to suffer. His numbers dipped further. The Indians tried to arrange a deal that would have sent him to the Boston Red Sox; he rejected it. He was then offered a steep pay cut. Rosen, who had worked as a stockbroker during off-seasons, chose to retire. “Every person has their own ego,” he recalled. “I was used to being the best, and when I couldn’t be the best in my own mind, it was time for me to move on because I didn’t want to start moving around from club to club.”
His injuries were far more extensive and overwhelming than people realized at the time. A fractured finger never healed. He got into a car accident the day before spring training began one year. “Things just began to deteriorate physically, and it became a mental thing,” he said. “Instead of being something I looked forward to every day, the game became something I dreaded.” Nor did this “mental thing” start only when his physical prowess began to wane: As early as 1952, a Baseball Digest profile described Rosen’s “exaggerated capacity for worrying over his batting troubles.” In the previous off-season, disappointed with his hitting, he had traveled to South America to clear his head and had given up golf so he could spend even more time on baseball, working out his legs well before that kind of training was the norm.
The comparisons to Greenberg were always obvious. Both men were enormous, muscular, and proud, feared hitters who were good for power and average alike. Both were Jewish ballplayers who made it clear they wouldn’t tolerate anti-Semitism. Rosen had grown up idolizing Greenberg. And, as it happened, Greenberg was a member of the Indians front office, in charge of the club’s minor league operations when Rosen broke in and general manager soon thereafter. With Rosen starring, Greenberg working behind the scenes, and Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau (Jewish on his mother’s side) as player/manager, the Indians probably had as much Jewish cachet as any organization before or since.
So, it’s of special, if morbid, curiosity, to Jewish sports fans that Greenberg played a not-insignificant role in Rosen’s retirement. In 1956, the player Rosen had grown up idolizing gave Rosen a choice between a second pay cut or a trade, neither of which suggested the former superstar had much faith in an Al Rosen comeback.
Rosen told me he prefers not to talk about his relationship with Greenberg. Leaving baseball was not an easy decision, and having Hank Greenberg push him out the door certainly didn’t help matters. “Too much has been written about my relationship with Greenberg, and I prefer not to go there,” he said.
“Was there some jealousy from Hank to Al, with Al being a prominent player with the Jewish community when Hank was now a front office guy?” said Berkow, who interviewed Rosen when putting together Greenberg’s posthumously completed memoir The Story of My Life. “Maybe, but I can’t go into Hank’s head.”
“Hank was a general manager in a time when general managers were tough,” Berkow added. “There wasn’t a lot of sentiment.” If he was looking to trade Rosen, maybe Greenberg pragmatically saw he could get some value for Rosen. “He wasn’t looking at it as a Jew and he wasn’t looking at it as a friend. He was looking at it purely as a baseball man.” In the end, it was the system that cost Rosen a shot at immortality.
Rosen remained in Cleveland until 1973, sitting on the Indians’ board of directors and working with hitters in the spring. In 1978, he returned to baseball as the president of the New York Yankees, caught in the crossfire between George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. Rosen resigned halfway through his second season and headed back to Las Vegas, bearing a World Series ring for his troubles. There was a front office stint with the Houston Astros from 1980 to 1985 and, from 1985 to 1992, time with the San Francisco Giants that won him Major League Baseball’s 1987 Executive of the Year award. A decade ago, he was briefly a consultant to Steinbrenner.
“I don’t have many contacts in baseball anymore, but I still watch the game with great relish,” Rosen told me. “I think these guys are unbelievable. I watch third basemen make plays, and I say to myself: ‘Rosen, do you think you could make that play?’ I tell you, those guys are terrific.”
Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of FreeDarko.com. He has contributed to GQ, Salon, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @freedarko.