Al Rosen, a slugging Jewish third baseman for the Cleveland Indians and winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1953, died Saturday at age 91. He was an outstanding player whose career was cut short by injuries and who battled anti-Semitism among players and fans.
Since Lipman Pike donned a uniform for the Troy Haymakers in 1871, there have been more than 160 Jews among the roughly 17,000 players who have played Major League baseball. Although there have been more than enough outstanding Jewish big leaguers to fill an All-Star team, Rosen is the third greatest Jewish baseball player of all time, after Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
Rosen spent four years in the Navy during World War II, hampering his development as a young player. And at the peak of his career, he was beset by injuries, which led him to retire in 1956 at age 32. His career was too short (only seven full seasons in the majors) to rival Greenberg as a player or a Jewish idol, or even to gain entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As a result, there are only two Jewish players — Greenberg and Koufax — in the Cooperstown shrine. Greenberg was the best Jewish player in the 1930s and 1940s, an idol among American Jews (including the young Rosen) at a time of widespread anti-Semitism. Koufax, whose career was hampered by wildness as a young pitcher and injuries as he reached his prime, was the greatest Jewish player of the 1960s — and, to many baseball observers, the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. Rosen, whose career was sandwiched in between these two iconic figures, took great pride in both his Jewishness and in his athletic accomplishments, but he is understandably not as well-known as either Greenberg or Koufax.
Like Greenberg and Koufax, Rosen refused to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, during his playing career. Like Greenberg, Rosen lost several years of his baseball life to military service. Like Greenberg, Rosen was nicknamed the “Hebrew Hammer.” Like Greenberg, Rosen was a powerful hitter and team leader, but not a colorful personality. And like Greenberg, Rosen later became a baseball team executive.
During his playing career, all with the Indians, Rosen banged 192 homers, drove in 717 runs and hit .285. (In contrast, during Greenberg’s 13-year career, he hit 331 homers and had a lifetime .313 batting average). During his prime playing years, Rosen was one of the top sluggers and third basemen in the Majors. From 1950 through 1955, only Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Ralph Kiner, Roy Campanella, and Stan Musial hit more homers. He played in every All-Star Game between 1952 and 1955.
Rosen’s playing career ended a decade before the advent of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Although Rosen worked in business and as a baseball executive after retiring as a player, he told one interviewer that Marvin Miller, the players union’s first executive director and organizer, who was hired in 1966, was the most influential person in baseball history.
Rosen’s admiration for Miller is understandable. The Indians kept Rosen in the minor leagues for several years when he was clearly ready to succeed in the majors, because they already had Ken Keltner, a popular slugger, at third base. When the Indians finally did promote him to Cleveland, he spent several years sitting on the bench, and didn’t become the team’s regular third baseman until 1950, when Keltner retired. This was before Miller and the MLBPA forced the baseball establishment to eliminate the “reserve clause” (which bound players to one club for life, or until that club decided to get rid of the player) and establish “free agency,” which allowed players to sign a contract with whatever team offered the best contract.
In 1954, Rosen was having an extraordinary season when, playing first base (not his usual position), he shattered his right index finger on his throwing hand trying to field a ground ball. Had the union been in place, the Indians would have been pressured to provide him with proper medical treatment and give him time to recover from his injury. Instead, the team required him to keep playing the rest of the season, even as his injury worsened, making it hard for him to grip the bat and to throw. Rosen’s finger never fully healed and his performance steadily declined, leading to his premature retirement.
Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1924, Rosen was an adolescent and a teenager during the Depression and served in the military during World War II, periods when anti-Semitism was virulent and widespread. A 1938 poll found that about 60 percent of Americans held a low opinion of Jews, labeling them “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “pushy.” In 1939, a Roper poll found that only 39 percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted” and 10 percent believed that Jews should be deported. Although Jews constituted only 0.6 percent of the nation’s 93,000 commercial bankers in 1939, the stereotype that Jews controlled the banking system persisted. In 1938, 41 percent of those surveyed agreed that Jews had “too much power in the United States,” and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945, at time when the U.S. was still fighting the Nazis but few Americans knew much about the anti-Jewish atrocities that came be called the Holocaust. At the time, many Americans believed that Jews were a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious or racial group. A 1945 survey discovered that 23 percent of Americans would vote for a congressional candidate if the candidate declared “himself as being against the Jews” and 35 percent said that it would not affect their vote.
Even after World War II, there were still anti-Jewish quotas and other forms of anti-Semitism in business and in admissions to college and professional schools, housing, country clubs, fraternities, and other aspects of American life. Anti-Semitism was so prevalent that it was the subject of a major Hollywood movie — Elia Kazan’s 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement — in which Gregory Peck plays Philip Green, a WASP-y journalist who decides to spend six months posing as a Jew in order to expose anti-Jewish bigotry, which he routinely encounters among friends, colleagues, editors, secretaries, hotel managers, and others. In 1948, many of President Harry Truman’s advisors urged him not to recognize the newly-created state of Israel, fearing that it would trigger a backlash against him and fellow Democrats among many Americans with anti-Jewish prejudices.
After his father abandoned his family, Rosen’s mother (who worked in a dress shop) moved Al and his brother to Miami, where they lived with his immigrant grandmother. The Rosens were the only Jewish family in a tough Little Havana neighborhood. In addition to having to deal with severe asthma throughout his childhood, Rosen confronted anti-Semitism from local bullies and wound up in many fights. “I wasn’t starting trouble in those days, but when it came to me, I wanted to end it, and damn quick,” he told Roger Kahn in How the Weather Was. These incidents spurred him to learn to box and he later became a champion amateur pugilist at the University of Florida and then the University of Miami. Although Rosen was a burly and muscular 5 foot 10 inch teenager, his high school football coach questioned him why a Jew was going out for the football team.
An outstanding athlete in high school, Rosen quit college in 1942 to try to make it as a professional baseball player. A team in Thomasville, North Carolina in the lowest level of the minor leagues signed Rosen to a $90 a month contract. But later that year he joined the Navy and saw action in the South Pacific, which included navigating an assault boat in the initial landing on Okinawa. He spent almost four years in the military before restarting his baseball career. He spent the 1946 season playing for an Indians farm team, the Pittsfield Electrics in Massachusetts, where he batted .323 with 16 homers and 86 runs batted in and was voted the league’s outstanding rookie. The following year he was promoted to the Oklahoma City Indians in the Texas League, where hit .349, had 186 hits, 141 RBIs and a .619 slugging percentage, and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. During his minor league days, Rosen constantly faced anti-Semitic taunts, especially when playing in Southern towns.
Rosen briefly joined the Indians in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The recent film 42 showed the kind of outrageous racism that Robinson faced from players and fans alike, including — at first — some of his own teammates. Nothing that Rosen faced could compare with what Robinson had to deal with, but that doesn’t mean that Rosen had it easy, on and off the field, as one of the handful of Jews in the majors.
In Rosen’s rookie season, there were only six other Jews in the Major Leagues and America was still a deeply anti-Semitic country. Unlike Robinson, Rosen was no social crusader, but the two players shared a hot temper when it came to prejudice. Dodgers president Branch Rickey made Robinson promise that in his first two years with the team he would not retaliate against racist taunts, but Rosen was under no such constraint. “I was a tough kid and I was willing to fight at the drop of a hat,” Rosen recalled in an interview with Peter Ephross for his book, Jewish Major Leagues in Their Own Words.
When he was playing for the Indians, someone on the Chicago White Sox called Rosen a “Jew bastard.” Rosen walked over to the Sox dugout and calmly asked whoever called him that name to step forward. No one did.
Years later, in an interview with Larry Ruttman, author of American Jews and America’s Game, Rosen disclosed that White Sox pitcher Sol Rogovin, a fellow Jew, knew which of his teammates had called Rosen a “Jew bastard.” “He fought a terrible battle with himself, as he told me in later years,” Rosen recalled, “whether he should tell me or he should be quiet because he was on this squad of twenty-five men. I applauded him for that — I think it would have been a mistake for him to reveal it.”
Another time, when Boston Red Sox catcher Matt Batts was taunting him from the bench, Rosen called time and challenged Batts, who was sitting in the dugout, to have it out. Fortunately for Batts, two of his teammates rushed Batts away before Rosen could grab him.
After the 1947 season, the Indians sent Rosen back to a Triple-A league team in Kansas City, where he batted .327 and won the league’s Rookie of the Year award. The Indians recalled him to Cleveland at the end of the 1948 season, but he spent most of that year and the following year riding the bench, until Keltner retired.
In 1950, his first season as a regular player with the Indians, Rosen hit 37 home runs, leading the American League and setting the record for a rookie. He batted .287, drove in 116 runs, scored another 100 runs, and led the league’s third basemen in assists. In 1951, his numbers slipped (.265, 24 homers, 102 RBIs), but he managed to hit four grand-slam homers to tie a major league season record. Rosen was back in the groove in 1952 with a .302 batting average, 101 runs scored, and a league-leading 105 RBIs.
The next season was Rosen’s best, one of the greatest single years any player has ever had. He played in every game, led the league in homers (43) and RBIs (145), and batted .336. He missed winning the almost impossible-to-achieve Triple Crown — tops in homers, RBIs, and batting average — in his last at bat of the season. Many observers believe that he beat out a slow grounder to third base that, if scored as a hit, would have given him the league batting average and the Triple Crown. But umpire Hank Soar called Rosen out. Rosen told his manager, Al Lopez, not to protest the call. “I was out, Al,” he said. “I missed the bag.” As a result, the Washington Senators’ Mickey Vernon narrowly won the batting title with a .337 average. Rosen was voted unanimously the American League’s Most Valuable Player, the first player to receive all first-place MVP votes since Hank Greenberg accomplished that feat in 1935.
Hampered by injuries, Rosen, played in only 137 games in 1954. He still hit .300, slammed 24 homers, drove in 102 runs, and won the MVP award in the All-Star game that year after hitting two homers. (That year, the Indians won the AL pennant with a then-record 111 victories but lost the World Series to the New York Giants in four games). Rosen’s injuries — a back problem as a result of a car accident, along with his broken finger — worsened in 1955. He played in only 139 games, his batting average fell to .244, he hit only 21 homers, and drove in only 81 runs. These were respectable accomplishments but far below what fans had come to expect. This 1956 season was also a disappointment — a .267 batting average, 15 homers and 61 RBIs.
Ironically, it was Hank Greenberg, by then the Indians’ general manager, who hastened Rosen’s early retirement. Greenberg had cut Rosen’s salary from $42,500 to $37,500 after the 1955 season. Following the 1956 season, Greenberg told Rosen that he was going to slash his salary by another $5,000. That edict — coming from Rosen’s one-time idol — compounded Rosen’s frustrations with his declining performance, so he chose to quit. Had the players union been around at the time, Greenberg wouldn’t have been able to arbitrarily reduce Rosen’s salary.
When his playing days were over, Rosen returned to college and for the next 17 years worked as a stockbroker in Cleveland and got more involved in that city’s Jewish community. But he missed baseball. He served on the Indians’ board of directors and worked as a batting instructor during spring training, but it wasn’t sufficient. After five years working for a Las Vegas casino, Rosen accepted New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s offer to become the team’s president in 1978. That year the Yankees won the AL pennant and the World Series, but many observers say that Rosen spent much of the season mediating battles between the arrogant Steinbrenner and hot-tempered manager Billy Martin, who was either fired or resigned in mid-season, depending on what source you believe. Rosen replaced him with his old Indians teammate, Bob Lemon.
Steinbrenner rehired Martin for the following year and limited Rosen’s role in the day-to-day baseball operations, so Rosen quit in the middle of the 1979 season. He later became general manager of the Houston Astros but had his greatest executive success after 1985, when he was hired as president and general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He helped rebuild a team that had finished in last place in 1985 to one that won the NL West title two years later. Rosen was chosen as Major League Executive of the Year — the only person ever to earn that title along with the Most Valuable Player award. After the Giants won the NL championship in 1989 (but lost the World Series to the Oakland A’s), Rosen retired to a home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Last year, there were 15 Jews on Major League teams. It is doubtful that most of group — Ryan Braun, Craig Beslow, Ike Davis, Scott Feldman, Nate Freiman, Sam Fuld, Ryan Kalish, Ian Kinsler, Ryan Lavarnway, Joc Pederson, Kevin Pillar, Aaron Poreda, Josh Satin, Danny Valencia, and Josh Zeid — would recognize Rosen’s name, much less know what a great player and trailblazer he was.
That’s unfortunate, because Rosen was an outstanding player and a source of pride for many postwar Jews enthralled by our national pastime at a time when they still faced hostility and barriers in American society.
“When I was in the majors,” Rosen recalled after he retired, “I always knew how I wanted it to be about me …. Here comes one Jewish kid that every Jew in the world can be proud of.”
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest American of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).