Over the course of the game’s illustrious history, individual accomplishments and achievements transcended the sport and defined its future. As years past and generations pass the torch to their youth, these names become obscured and their legacy clouded due to a gap in eras. Despite toiling in obscurity among the most novice baseball fans, their actions remain etched in the minds in the decades, which followed. Time ultimately passes and unfortunately their life as well. Al Rosen, emblematic of all those characteristics during his half-century in baseball, lost his battle with cancer late Friday, passing away at the age of 91.
A South Carolina native, Rosen grew up admiring the exploits of Hank Greenberg through his love of baseball and as a representative of his Jewish heritage. After serving four years in the military during World War II, Rosen would pursue a career in Major League Baseball, becoming the third baseman for the Cleveland Indians. Rosen’s rookie year in 1947 would coincide with the début of Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League. The duo would team with future Hall of Famer Bob Feller, as the Tribe would enjoy their most prosperous era in franchise history, capturing two American League pennants and a World Series title in 1948. After brief cameos with the Indians during his first three seasons, Rosen would emerge as a mainstay by 1950 and led the league in home runs with 37. Rosen would club at least twenty home runs in six consecutive seasons, while making four All-Star appearances. Rosen’s accomplishments would culminate with the 1953, batting .336 with a league leading 43 home runs, 145 runs batted in, finishing ten wins above replacement. The Triple Crown would be in reach until the season’s last day, when the Washington Senators’ Mickey Vernon captured the batting title by a single percentage point. The Indians would return to the fall classic one year later after 111 victories in the regular season. A Vic Wertz drive to deepest part of centerfield at the Polo Grounds landed in the glove of the New York Giants’ Willie Mays in Game 1, becoming immortalized as “The Catch”. After the Giants claimed the series, the Indians would spend 41 years caught near the bottom of the American League and failing to reach the postseason until the advent of the Wild Card.
Rosen would spend two more seasons in Cleveland after the team’s defeat to New York in the 1954 World Series before back problems prematurely ended his career. A truncated career signified the doors of Cooperstown remaining shut despite an impressive career peak. Rosen would finish his playing career with a .285 average, 192 home runs, and 717 runs batted in. A second career in baseball would be preceded by two decades as a stockbroker. Rosen would fervently learn the nuances of the corporate world, preparing him for working under George Steinbrenner as President and CEO of the New York Yankees in 1978. Former Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul incrementally rebuilt the Yankees, acquiring the likes of Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, and Mickey Rivers, en route to the 1977 World Series championship. The 1978 season would get off to a tumultuous start for Rosen, after being forced to dismiss manager Billy Martin midway through the season due to increasing tension with Reggie Jackson. The easygoing Bob Lemon would take over as skipper and the Yankees proceeded to erase a fourteen and a half game deficit in the AL East, defeat the Red Sox in a one game playoff, and win the 22nd World Championship in franchise history. Martin would return as manager during the 1979 as Steinbrenner’s game of musical skippers commenced. Martin, peeved with Rosen over his dismissal the previous season, would not communicate with him. Increasing micromanagement by Steinbrenner let to Rosen’s resignation after the season.
By the early 1980s, the Houston Astros would tap Rosen as the club’s general manager. A nucleus of Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott would lead the Astros to three consecutive third place finishes before finishing once game short of the pennant in 1986, the year after Rosen departed. After modest success in both New York and Houston, the San Francisco Giants named Rosen their President and General Manager. Inheriting one of the league’s most dismal franchises, Rosen quickly built through the system, improving the roster, and making shrewd trades such as the acquisition of Kevin Mitchell, Dave Dravecky, and Craig Lefferts from the San Diego Padres in 1987. The Giants would capture the NL West that season, before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. Following the season, Rosen would be named NL Executive of the Year, becoming the only person to win the award and MVP honors in their careers. The Giants would continue to develop into a championship caliber club under Rosen and culminate their 1989 campaign with a World Series appearance, led by career seasons from Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell. The Giants outstanding season would be overshadowed by the Loma Prieta Earthquake and a four game sweep by the Oakland A’s in the World Series. The start of a new decade signaled a changing baseball landscape and Rosen, with triumphs both on the field and in the front office, retired and spent the rest of his life with his family in California.
During his tenure in baseball, Rosen would build a legacy based on his hard-nosed play and strong instincts. Those characteristics would endear him in the Jewish community, serving as the baseball’s most celebrated Jewish players. Rosen currently ranks in the top ten among Jewish players in home runs, hits, and runs batted in. Rosen would be known as, “The Hebrew Hammer”, during his playing days, a moniker later used to characterize Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. Rosen’s death also signifies the next wave of Jewish players ready to make their mark in baseball come Opening Day, led by Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. The Jewish Sports Hall of Fame would induct Rosen into their hallowed grounds in 2006, recognizing his accomplishments. The passage to time through eras within the game of baseball can sometimes obscure the legacy of a celebrated individual. The slight is not intentional but occurs as the evolution of baseball and society create new stories and a legion of fans gravitate towards familiar names as the lack the connection to the past. Rosen’s triumphs as a player and executive, transformed the game and the fortunes of three franchises. The acumen needed to be at the summit of your profession as both a player and executive might never be accomplished again. The loss of Rosen makes us recognize the rarity of his accomplishments and the indelible mark left on the game and its culture.