Sunday, March 15, 2015

Al Rosen, 1924-2015


It's hard to say that a man who played 10 years in the major leagues, had a long and distinguished career as a major league executive, was admired for decades, and lived into his 90s faced unfairness.

But Al Rosen did.

Albert Leonard Rosen was born in February 29, 1924, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Actually, while the Earth has gone around the sun 91 full times since then, his birthday falling on Leap Year Day meant that he faced only 22 birthdays.

His father left the family shortly after he was born, and his mother and grandmother took him to Miami -- meaning he did the opposite of what Jewish people stereotypically do: He grew up in Miami, and went to New York when he got old.

A 3rd baseman, he was signed by the Cleveland Indians, and was Texas League Most Valuable Player in 1947, starring for the Oklahoma City Indians. Like Hank Greenberg before him, and Ryan Braun long after him, he was nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer.

His performance got him a late-season call-up. He made his major league debut on September 10, 1947, at the original Yankee Stadium. Wearing Number 17, he pinch-hit for Joe Frazier -- not the heavyweight boxing champion, but the man who went on to manage the Mets between Yogi Berra and Joe Torre -- who was injured in mid-swing while pinch-hitting for Indians catcher Jim Hegan. This was in the top of the 6th inning, against Vic Raschi. Rosen struck out, and the Yankees won, 7-4.

Because the Indians had the fine-fielding Ken Keltner at 3rd base, Rosen only made 65 major-league plate appearances before his 26th birthday. This included 5 in their 1948 World Championship season , still the last one the club has won. But manager/shortstop Lou Boudreau did include him on the World Series roster, and he made a plate appearance, and thus he got a World Series ring. That late start was the 1st thing that may have cost him membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (He served in World War II, but was just 21 when the war ended, so it's hard to say the war seriously delayed his arrival in the majors.)

In 1950, the Indians trading the injured Keltner, and Rosen, now wearing Number 7, was their regular 3rd baseman for the next 7 season. And what seasons they were. In 1950, he batted .287, led the American League with 37 home runs, had 106 RBIs, and drew 100 walks, still a record for an Indians rookie 65 years later. Those 37 homers were an AL record until Mark McGwire -- possibly already using steroids -- broke in in 1987. All this despite playing his home games in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, whose expansive dimensions and rough weather (it was right on Lake Erie) made it a pitcher's park.

He also led the AL in being hit by 10 pitches. How many of those were due to his being Jewish, only the pitchers who did it knew for sure. Anti-Semitism may have been a 2nd reason he's not in the Hall of Fame.

Once, during a game against the Chicago White Sox, an opposing player shouted from the dugout, calling him a "Jew bastard." He didn't recognize the voice, but he walked over to the dugout, and said to the entire team, "I'll see you after the game, you son of a bitch!" The SOB didn't show, and he never found out who said it. Another time, against the Boston Red Sox, he was playing 3rd base, wen a Sox player yelled anti-Semitic names. This time, Rosen saw who was doing it: Matt Batts. He called time, ran to the front of the Sox dugout, and challenged Batts. The challenge was not met. On occasion, Rosen mentioned that he wished he had a name that sounded more Jewish, like "Rosenstein."

In 1951, he had 102 RBIs, and hit 24 home runs, 4 of them grand slams, a club record until 2006, when Travis Hafner hit 5. In 1952, he led the AL with 105 RBIs and 297 total bases, and made the 1st of 4 All-Star Games. The Gold Gloves weren't established until after he retired as a player, but he was generally regarded as a good fielder. The unavailability to him of that particular recognition may be a 3rd reason he's not in the Hall of Fame.

In 1953, Rosen had his best season -- according to The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the best season ever by a 3rd baseman. He batted .336, just behind Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators for the batting title. Another hit, and he would have won the Triple Crown, as he led the AL in home runs with 43 and RBIs with 145, still an Indians record 62 years later. He also led the AL in runs, slugging percentage and total bases. His OPS+ was a whopping 180, meaning that, in that season, he was 80 percent better at producing runs than the average player. He was named AL MVP, even though, as they had in 1951 and '52, the Indians finished 2nd to the Yankees.

In 1954, despite the Yankees winning 103 games, the Indians finally got over the big Bronx hump, winning 111 to break the 1927 Yankees' AL record. (This record has only been surpassed by the 1998 Yankees and the 2001 Seattle Mariners.) Rosen batted .300 with 24 homers and 102 RBIs -- a comedown, to be sure, but a big help in winning the Pennant. But they fell victim to New York again, this time getting swept by the Giants in the World Series, thanks to Willie Mays' glove, Dusty Rhodes' bat and Johnny Antonelli's arm. Losing that Series may be a 4th reason why Rosen is not in the Hall of Fame.

It would be 41 years before the Indians won another Pennant, and injuries to Rosen's back and leg were among the many reasons why. They picked up Ralph Kiner for 1955, but he, too, had a bad back, and had to retire after that season. In 1955, Rosen's average dropped from .300 to .244, although he still had 21 homers and 81 RBIs. But 1956 was a miserable season for him, as his injury got worse. After playing in 612 of a possible 618 games from 1950 to '53, he was down to 121 games. His production rate improved, as he batted .267, with 15 homers and 61 RBIs. But it got too painful to play, and, at age 32, he hung up his spikes, with just 192 home runs. So not only did he lose a few years at the beginning of his career, he lost a few at the end. Essentially, he had half a career. That's a 5th reason why he's not in the Hall of Fame.

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A 6th reason why he's not in the Hall of Fame is that they don't combine playing and non-playing achievements. None of the 4 major North American sports' halls of fame does. In baseball, in particular, this has hurt Rosen, Fred Hutchinson, Gil Hodges, Lou Piniella and Mike Hargrove.

Baseball-Reference.com has a Hall of Fame Monitor, on which a score of 100 indicates a "Likely HOFer." Rosen came in at 82, meaning he fell a bit short. They also have a Hall of Fame Standards, on which a score of 50 represents the "Average HOFer." This is more weighted toward career numbers, and he came in at just 28, well below consideration.

They also have Similarity Scores, which is weighted toward players of the same or a similar field position. Rosen's 10 Most Similar Players are Bob Horner, Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, Jim Ray Hart, Charlie Keller, Phil Nevin, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Kemp, Wally Post and Preston Wilson. None of them is in the Hall -- and you'll notice that some of them also had their careers short-circuited by injury: Horner, Keller, and now Kemp. Granted, Longoria, Hamilton, Zimmerman and Kemp are still active, but I wouldn't bet on any of them making it. So Rosen's chances of ever getting into the Hall as a player are not good. Which may not be fair, but the Hall of Fame isn't for guys who were great for 5 years -- unless you're Dizzy Dean or Sandy Koufax -- it's for guys who were great for much longer.

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"Flip" Rosen became a stockbroker, and a very successful one. But for 22 years, no major league team asked him to return to the game, in any capacity.

That ended in 1978. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who grew up in Cleveland and remembered him with the Indians, asked him to become team president and general manager, succeeding Gabe Paul, who decided he'd had enough of George, and went back to running the Indians.

When Billy Martin had his midseason meltdown, and resigned one step ahead of George's ax, Rosen recommended that George hire his former Indians pitching teammate, Bob Lemon, to replace Billy. It wasn't out of the blue: Lemon had been the pitching coach on the Yankees' 1976 Pennant winners, and had previously managed the White Sox and the Kansas City Royals. He'd just been fired as White Sox manager, so he was available. He came in, calmed the team down, and made it back-to-back World Series wins.

Rosen now had a 2nd World Series ring, 30 years after his 1st, and, this time, he was a true contributor.

There's an interesting note that brings us back to the subject of his religion. When the Yankees and the Red Sox finished in a tie for the AL Eastern Division title, a Playoff was scheduled for October 2. Rosen and Red Sox GM Haywood Sullivan got on the phone with AL President Lee MacPhail, who flipped a coin to decide home-field advantage for the game. Rosen called heads, and it came up tails. (This had nothing to do with his nickname: He was known as Flip long before this.)

When George found out the game would be in Boston, he flipped: "How the hell could you call heads, when any dummy knows that tails comes up 75 percent of the time?" (I don't know where George got that piece of info. Maybe from "my baseball people." I'd certainly never heard it before I wrote this post.) Of course, playing the game at Fenway probably saved the Yanks: Bucky Dent's 7th inning home run would have been a long out at Yankee Stadium, and those 2 plays that Lou Piniella faced in the 9th inning might have both been home runs.

But when the Yankees got to their hotel in Kansas City, to face the Royals in the AL Championship Series, there was a message for Rosen. It was from a Jewish woman, who pointed out that October 2, in 1978, was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosen had refused to play on the high holy days, as had Greenberg before him, and as would Koufax after him. But this time, he had sat next to Steinbrenner all game long, and the woman said she saw him on TV.

Al had the perfect response. He asked the woman if she was Jewish as well. She said she was. He asked, "Why were you watching TV on Rosh Hashanah?"

The 1979 season was one of the hardest in Yankee history, and George's various complaints and rages finally caught up with Al, and he quit. George calmed down, and offered him a lifetime contract for $1 million a year, at a time when no player was yet making that much. Al refused, telling George, "I'll always consider you a friend, but I could never work for you again."

Another man who could never work for George again was Dr. John McMullen, an engineer who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and, after serving, became a shipping engineer, which is how he met George, and became one of his "limited partners" in buying the Yankees in 1973. In 1979, he sold out, saying, "There is nothing so limited as being one of George Steinbrenner's limited partners."

McMullen then bough the Houston Astros, and hired Rosen. Together, they signed free-agent pitcher Nolan Ryan, a native of the Houston suburbs, and made him the first $1 million-a-year player. The Astros won the National League Western Division for the 1st time in 1980, and made the Playoffs again in the strike-forced split season of 1981. But they couldn't keep it together, and, in 1985, Rosen moved on.

He moved on to the San Francisco Giants, and helped them win the 1987 NL West title and the 1989 Pennant. In the latter year, he was named NL Executive of the Year, making him the only person to date to win that award and an MVP. He left the Giants in 1992, as Bob Lurie tried to move the team to Tampa Bay, before selling them to a group that kept them in San Francisco.


(Throwing out the ceremonial first ball before a 1997 World Series game in Cleveland.)

Al mainly consulted with major league teams after that, and, changing his mind about working for George again, was a special assistant to GM Brian Cashman in 2001 and '02, helping the Yankees win another Pennant.

But he hasn't been elected to the Hall of Fame as an executive, either. And now, he'll never be elected during his lifetime. He died on Friday, in the resort community of Rancho Mirage, California. He married twice, had 3 children with his 1st wife, and 2 stepchildren with his 2nd wife.

Al Rosen isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player, or as an executive. And that's a bit unfair. He was a Hall of-Fame-worthy figure in baseball history, and if you're a fan of the Indians, the Yankees, the Astros or the Giants; or, if you're a Jewish baseball fan; or, heck, if you're a baseball fan, you owe him your thanks.

Thank you, Al.

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Rosen's death means that there are now only 3 living players from Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, when Mays made "The Catch": Mays, Monte Irvin, and Rosen's usual backup at 3rd base for the Indians, Rudy Regalado.

It also means that there are only 2 players left who played in the 1948 World Series: Eddie Robinson of the Indians, and Clint Conatser of the Boston Braves. Alvin Dark opposed Rosen's Indians for the '48 Braves and the '54 Giants, but he died this past November.



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