By In Baseball, RIP

Al Rosen

In the end, we are all prisoners of circumstance … and it was circumstance that kept Al Rosen from being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rosen, who died a couple of days ago, was a truly great player. Circumstances kept many from knowing it.

Rosen’s father left the family when Al was a baby. He was born with a terrible case of asthma — for this reason his mother moved the family to Miami from Spartanburg, South Carolina when he was still a toddler. He was Jewish in a part of Miami where there were no other Jews, and he spent much of his childhood fighting bullies. He boxed for a time. Rosen loved baseball more, though; he once had a high school coach tell him that baseball was not a game for Jews. He signed with the Cleveland Indians when he was 18. A manager there told him he probably should find a real job. He joined the Navy and went to war.

So, no, it never was easy. When Rosen got out of the Navy — he fought in the South Pacific, was involved in the assault at Okinawa — and he was 22 when he returned to baseball. His first year, in Pittsfield, he hit .323 with power. The next year, in Oklahoma City, he hit .349 with power. The next year, in Kansas City, e hit .327 with power.

In other words, Al Rosen was already good enough to be a star in the Major Leagues. Trouble was, Cleveland already had a third baseman they loved — Ken Keltner. He was a seven-time All-Star, viewed as a defensive wizard (in part because of the role he played in ending Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak) and good enough to inspire Bill James to come up with the Keltner list of questions to determine Hall of Fame worth (even if Keltner ends up falling short on his own list).

Keltner had probably his best season in 1948, and so Rosen did not become a full-time Major Leaguer until 1950 when he was 26. In Rosen’s first year, he set a rookie record with 37 home runs. That also led the league — Rosen would lead the American League in homers two of his first four full seasons. There is little doubt that Rosen could have been a high level Major Leaguer for several more years had circumstances been different.

He endured a lot of abuse for being Jewish, both from opponents and people in the crowd. He embraced his role as a Jewish player– “The Hebrew Hammer” — and once said he wished his name was MORE Jewis so he could inspire more Jewish kids. I once got the chance to ask him how that abuse affected his career. He was quite circumspect about it. On the one hand, he said, it inspired him to become a better player. On the other hand, though, he wondered how he might have played if he didn’t feel the weight of the world on his shoulders ever single day. He did not deny the possibility that fighting as hard as he did shortened his career.

In 1953, he finished one batting point short of the triple crown. It might be the greatest year ever for a third baseman. Here are five nominees:

— Al Rosen, 1953: .336/.422/.613, 43 homers, 145 RBIs, 115 runs.
— George Brett, 1980: .390/.454/.664, 24 homers, 118 RBIs.
— Mike Schmidt, 1980: .286/.380/..624, 48 homers, 121 RBIs, 104 runs, Gold Glove.
— Adrian Beltre, 2004. .334/.388.629, 48 homers, 121 RBIs.
— Alex Rodriguez, 2007. .314/.422/645, 54 homers, 156 RBIs, 143 runs.

For five seasons, between ages 26-30, Rosen hit .298/.396/.528. The decline phase then began, he was just a useful player at 31 and 32. And then he retired, in part because of debilitating injuries, in part because his one-time hero Hank Greenberg — then the Indians GM — slashed his salary.

Circumstances. The Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the survivors, the bulletproof, the fortunate ones who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Al Rosen is not in the Hall of Fame. He never got to be a young player. He never got to be an old player. The war, the team, the role of being a pioneer, the body shortened everything. But for five years, Al Rosen was about as good as anybody who ever played third base in the Major Leagues.

24 Responses to Al Rosen

  1. Joe Macphee says:

    Al Rosen became my first baseball hero when i was nine years old based on his 1954 topps card. i wasn’t Jewish and probably didn’t know a Jewish person or what one was even. Still is my favourite baseball card and i still have that original although far from mint condition.

  2. otistaylor89 says:

    You wonder why they didn’t play him at a different position in 1947-1949 and you look at that Indians team and realize that it was stacked, maybe in more than the Yankee teams. Then you get to 1950 when he actually played and you have Cleveland finishing 4th, 6 games back of NYY..with 92 wins (5th place WASH finished 31 games back).
    Post 1946 MLB had way more talent than teams, except for the teams like the Browns, Senators and A’s who were mailing it in every year.

  3. Marc Schneider says:

    “he once had a high school coach tell him that baseball was not a game for Jews.” I think this is incorrect. According to “The Passionate People,” by Roger Kahn, the coach actually told Rosen, who also played football, that football was not a game for “Jewboys.” This would have been more in keeping with the prejudices of the time, that Jews were weak and unphysical.

  4. Marc Schneider says:

    I’m not sure of the exact circumstances, but my understanding is that Rosen was injured (I believe he got hit by a pitch and broke his hand) sometime after his MVP season and was never the same after that. Also, Kahn’s book gives a slightly different account of Rosen wanting his name to be more Jewish. He quotes Rosen as saying that when he was in the minor leagues, he wished his name was anything but Rosen so people would not know he was Jewish; it was later that he wanted his name to be more Jewish. Kahn’s portrait of Rosen, written in the late sixties, is really fascinating.

    • Richard Aronson says:

      Per Sports Illustrated’s obituary, Rosen broke a finger early on when they tried playing him at first base instead of third, but came back without problems. But he got in a nasty car wreck, hit from behind, which cause back and neck issues that basically ended his career as a HOF player.

  5. Anon says:

    Greatest all-time 3B seasons – can’t forget MIggy in 2012-2013 when he moved to 3B. One old-fashioned Triple Crown season in 2012 and one SABR Triple Slash Crown in 2013 that was almost certainly better than 2012. He couldn’t hang with the glove with the guys you named but with the bat it’s right there.

    Also, you could probably throw a couple Eddie Mathews seasons in there and Chipper’s 1999 MVP. I also thought of Pujols but he never was a full-time 3B in any season. Killebrew was only FT for 1 season in 1959 and it wasn’t there with the seasons mentioned.

    • Richard Aronson says:

      Rosen’s was the only season on that list that was over 10 WAR for a single season for a third baseman. A-Rod’s 2000 also was double digits but he was a shortstop then. Rosen’s OPS+ was higher than anyone listed except Miggy’s 190, but Miggy’s serious deficiencies in the first knock his overall WAR down below the others. Brett’s 1980 MVP season (batted .390) had the highest OPS+ by far (203, followed by Miggy’s 190 and Rosen’s 180) but he only played 117 games, which really cut into his WAR, and was not listed as Brett’s best season. If he’d stayed healthy, I think his OPS+ would have dropped a chunk but his WAR would have risen enough to catch Rosen. What’s really surprising is that two of the possible contenders for best 3B seasons (Brett’s and Schmidt in 1981) were both dramatically shortened, by injury and a strike respectively, protecting Rosen’s place in history.

      I’d be happy with Al Rosen in Cooperstown, and wish it could have happened when he was alive. I have zero doubt that the man who led the league in homers at age 26 in his rookie season would have easily completed his HOF resume if he’d been given a chance at 22, or even earlier if there were no WWII. One of the many reasons I like the NFL’s HOF process better is that they acknowledge that some shorter careers are great enough to deserve enshrinement. Rosen had three things shorten his career, all out of his control: the war, Keltner (who also served in 1945), and the other driver.

      I also note Scott Rolen won the 2003 Gold Glove at third base in the NL with a negative dWAR; Beltre deserved his first GG with 2.8 dWAR. Aside from their effect on Strat-O-Matic cards, I’ve long since stopped caring about Gold Gloves because of things like this.

  6. mike luck says:

    Had the pleasure of meeting at Cleveland Airport thirty years ago.
    He sat and talked to me for almost half an hour. Not only was he a great ball player but a mensch as well.

  7. wordyduke says:

    Bill James’s win shares system calibrates Rosen’s 1953 as the greatest ever by a third baseman. Then after 36 games of 1954, Rosen was hitting .376/.427/.1.111. But he broke a finger, he and the team didn’t take time to get it properly healed, and he was never the same.

    Back trouble came a year or so later, he and GM Hank Greenberg were oil and water, and Rosen retired, first to be a stock broker, then to his several executive positions with the Yankees, Astros, Giants. As Joe says, give him the beginning of his career and the logical end of his career and he coulda been a Hall of Famer as a player. That may be true of a good many others, but it’s certainly true of Al Rosen.

    • Spencer says:

      Is that a typo? Did he really have a 1.111 slugging percentage thru 36 games in 1954? Or is that OPS?

      If it’s slugging that’s incredible

      • buddaley says:

        According to Baseball Reference, it was OPS. Actually, it peaked after game 37 at 1.116 and remained over 1.000 through game 57. His slugging after game 36 was .684 and .692 after a 1-4 day with a home run in game 37. Still, pretty good.

  8. Brian says:

    That Triple Crown he missed out on featured a Senators team making baserunning errors quasi-intentionally so that Mickey Vernon wouldn’t come up again and jeopardize his batting crown. Knowing that if Vernon were to come up and make an out he would lose to Rosen, one guy got picked off and another got thrown out stretching a single into a double, leaving Vernon in the on-deck circle (not sure why the Sens didn’t just strike out or weakly ground out, but whatever). Meanwhile, Rosen was called out at first on what most agreed should’ve been an infield hit in his last AB.

    • Davan S. Mani says:

      The ump explanation was that Al.missed the bag. Al acknowledged that he missed the bag on the play

  9. Sadge says:

    I grew up knowing Rosen as the guy who helped turn around the Giants as their president and general manager. Not only was he an MVP as a player but National League Executive of the Year in 1989.

  10. It’s interesting that Ken Keltner kept Al Rosen off the field. Keltner, from 1942-1947 hit .271/.324/.401 and averaged 9 HRs and 66 RBIs. His dWAR was only slightly higher than replacement level, really throughout his career. Despite that, however, he was an All Star four of those years. He did have a bounceback year in 1948 (the World Series win year). But Keltner really wasn’t that great of a player. Rosen, for his career, hit .285/.384/.495 and averaged 27 HRs and 102 RBIs during his full seasons. Keltner must have had some reputation since his stats didn’t really back up his being a good hitter or even a good fielder for most of his career. He was very average. Someone in the personnel dept really messed up on not bringing Rosen up earlier. I’m sure they could have got someone for Keltner in a trade, too, based on his apparent reputation.

  11. invitro says:

    Here are the top 10 third basemen seasons by WAR per PA, through 2012, for players with 350 PA:

    1. Brett 1980
    2. Schmidt 1981
    3. Rolen 2004
    4. McGraw 1899
    5. Bell 1981
    6. Rosen 1953
    7. Beltre 2004
    8. Baker 1912
    9. Schmidt 1974
    10. Santo 1967

    Rodriguez 2007 is #18, and Cabrera 2013 is #50. Mathews has #22 (1954), #41 (1953), #42 (1959), and #49 (1955). Chipper 2008 is #12 and Chipper 2007 is #26. Schmidt also has #15 (1980) and #16 (1977). Brett also has #30 (1985) and #34 (1979).

    Randy Ready 1987 is #13.

    • wordyduke says:

      I’m not prepared to argue that win shares are a better metric that whatever version of WAR per PA you are using. But, for what it’s worth, here are the ten best win share seasons from The Baseball Gauge @ seamheads.

      Al Rosen 1953, 44. Joe Torre 1971, 41. Dick Allen 1964, 40. Eddie Mathews 1953, 39. A-Rod 2005, 39. Home Run Baker 1912, 38; also 1913, 37. Mike Schmidt 1974 and 1980, 38 and 38.
      George Brett 1985, 37. Obviously, shortened seasons like Schmidt’s and Bell’s 1981 won’t be top-ten here.

      Beltre’s 2004 is 11th (rather than 7th). Santo’s 1967 is 12th (rather than 10th). Rolen’s 2004 (142 games) doesn’t get quite as much credit for defense with win shares and is #60. John McGraw’s 1899 is 31st (instead of 4th): McGraw got into 117 games that year.

  12. Rosen’s 37 homers were NOT a rookie record, except for the AL. Wally Berger of Boston hit 38 in the early 1930s.

  13. Cooper Nielson says:

    “He never got to be a young player. He never got to be an old player.”

    I like this line. I have spent some time at Al Rosen’s BB-Ref page in the past and wondered what his “story” was. His career was so short, but what there was of it was simply excellent.

    As others have pointed out above, though Brett’s .390/.454/.664 in 1980 was unimpeachable, he missed almost 1/3 of the season that year, which, for me, drops that season a little bit as far as “all-timers.” (But 9.4 WAR in 117 games?! Wow.)

  14. Gary Goldstein says:

    My grandfather owned a small grocery store in NYC. Al Rosen’s mom lived nearby. The family story passed down was that she would tip the delivery boy better on days when Rosen had a good game!

  15. Davan S. Mani says:

    Funny thing though, his game was Catholic, power and hustle.

  16. Joel Amos says:

    I was 10 in1954 and was the biggest Indian fan in Alabama! Al Rosen was my favorite player. Didnt he play in the Series? His injury could have cost us a few wins, and eventually the Series. Players like him, Colavito, McDowell, Reiser, Conigliaro, Score, Fosse, etc.should given special recognition ala Hall of Honor

  17. I met Rosen in the spring of 1945 in Pittsfield, MA, and I was told he played for the Pittsfield Electrics then. He was a friend of the Adeson family whose son, Bobby, then 14, was a star pitcher for his junior high school team. So I do not understand the stories that says that Al played for them in 1946.

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