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Al Rosen, a flash of greatness

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The 22nd player on the Tribe all-time WAR list, for just a moment he was the greatest player alive

Al Rosen Holding Several Baseball Bats

Greatness isn’t always assured.

We’ve seen countless cases of baseball players with all the talent in the world cut down in their prime by bad luck, or an uncooperative body — any number of things stand between these guys and their potential. Sometimes though, for just a moment — a handful of seasons even — a player catches lightning in a bottle, seizes his time, and forces himself by sheer will into the record books (or at least the genetic memory of a franchise).

This is the case with Al Rosen.

One of just a few men who could ever call themselves a world champion in a Cleveland uniform (and one of only three to be named Most Valuable Player), for a scant three seasons Rosen was simply as good as they come. With 32.3 career wins above replacement, 22nd all time for the Tribe, he made an indelible mark on the team’s history

Life, it seems, wasn’t always right to Al Rosen. Born in South Carolina but moving shortly afterward to Miami because his father abandoned the family and brutal asthma demanded a more mild climate, it was a wonder he became an athlete at all. The move south was good for him though, and despite ridicule and bigotry he took to and succeeded at every sport he tried. This included football and boxing where he quickly gained mastery and forged a hard edge that would serve him well in the rough and tumble world of professional baseball.

According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Rosen said he was “was determined that every Jew in America would be proud of him because of his achievements”. Looking at his career, through determination and a dose of talent, he seems to have succeeded.

The professional game called Rosen a bit later than most, though he did try to break into baseball in the early ‘40s after a couple years at the University of Florida. One season in the minors was all he got before that damn World War II got in the way. He ended up in the Pacific, rising to the rank of lieutenant and commanding an assault boat in the invasion of the island of Okinawa. This is not an uncommon part of a story for any baseball player of that era. His own teammate, Bob Feller, was the first baseball player to volunteer for the war on Dec. 8, 1941. For Rosen, serving no doubt redoubled the toughness that proved to be his calling card.

It would be a few years before he made his mark on Major League Baseball, but like so many before him Rosen forged a place for himself on those long back roads around the country. He won his first MVP with the Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League. To this day, his season (.349 batting average, 141 RBIs, 47 doubles and 25 home runs) is considered among the greatest in that league’s long history.

Obviously, this caught the eye of a bigger club in Cleveland, but in 1948 Rosen lost a positional battle with Ken Keltner, a seven-time All-Star for the Indians (and also a resident of the team’s all-time WAR list) who had the notable distinction of being the guy who stopped Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Rosen found himself in Kansas City with the Blues. That will to win, to make himself noticed and his nascent greatness once again showed itself, as Rosen won Rookie of the Year in the American Association and hit .327/.422/.587 with 25 home runs in 112 games. He logged five homers in a row between July 27 and 28.

Keltner continued to block the young slugger, but ultimately that damn Father Time felled him as well, and Rosen got his shot in 1950. He proceeded to go absolutely nuclear. Given a full season of playing time, Rosen just did what he did everywhere else where he got a chance. He hit .287/.405/.543 with 37 home runs and 115 RBI that year, simultaneously surprising and dominating the competition.

Once he settled into the everyday rigors of the majors, Rosen had a run from June 2 to July 30 where he hit .312/.432/.642 with 19 homers and 56 RBIs. He earned 5.8 WAR that year, trailing only superstar Larry Doby on the team leaderboard. The pair of them were a formidable force in the center of the lineup, but despite their work and the feats of Feller and a great rotation they came in fourth with 93 wins and missed the postseason. Baseball was brutal back then, and chasing the Yankees was the name of the game.

The Tribe would find themselves perennial bridesmaids the next three years, not able to overcome Mantle and his boys to make it to the Series. Not for lack of trying from Rosen though — after a sophomore slump in ‘51 where he hit .265/.362/.447 with 25 homers, 102 RBI and 3.5 WAR, the next two seasons he peaked in a way that would make Dennis Reynolds jealous. Over those two seasons, he hit .319/.405/.569, drove in 250, hit 47 home runs along with 59 doubles and 11 triples, and compiled 16 WAR, including 10.2 in 1953 when he won his MVP. He led the league in RBIs both years, and the 47 dingers in ‘53 gave him the league lead.

Triple Crowns are a neat thing, right? That’s kind of what won Miguel Cabrera his first MVP over Mike Trout, even if stat-heads complained about the stark WAR difference (10.5 to 7.1 in favor of Trout, or roughly one Carlos Santana). Rosen was right there to win the Triple Crown, actually losing the batting title on the last day to Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators. There’s probably some out there, small-time conspiracy theorists who think Rosen got jobbed.

In reality, there were a few moving parts. First, Rosen did go 3-for-5 on the final day of the season and did lose the batting title by basically a hit. He hit .392 in September too, bringing his season rate up ten points in those 25 games. So, he certainly put in the effort. On his final at-bat, though, there was a controversial call at first, as Rosen evidently beat out a grounder to third. Umpire Hank Soar disagreed and called him out on a bang-bang call. Apparently, Rosen missed the bag. Seeing what we see today in review — both calls umpires get miraculously right on close plays and boneheaded, obvious misses — it’s hard to say. Soar did umpire for 22 years in the majors, so he probably wasn’t bad, but he also played football in a time before helmets, so who’s to say what he saw. It’s something to consider though: How many MVP-caliber players not named Manny Ramirez would miss the bag, especially first?

The other side is what was happening while Rosen didn’t get that last hit. Vernon, who had won a batting title in 1948 as well, actually outstripped Rosen in September, hitting .395 to edge his final rate to .337. One could say he earned it. However, some say that Vernon’s teammates, knowing what’s at stake made sure he wouldn’t bat in the ninth of the final game of the season. According to reports from SABR, two of Vernon’s teammates executed flawless TOOTBLANs in back-to-back innings. Some think it was in service to Vernon.

Mickey Grasso got picked off second after doubling, ending the eighth, and Keith Thomas got thrown out at second trying to stretch a single in the ninth. Dumb stuff, but smart in a way because they still got their hits. It could have been on purpose. Other players took swings though, other outs were recorded. One guy even got a hit to extend the ninth. It’s a bit much to really think there was some kind of sinister plan to rob Rosen. But still, who’s to say?

Despite that, Rosen did get the MVP unanimously, of which Milton Gross of the New York Post said, “Against the backdrop of provincialism usually shown in this voting, the landslide not only is unprecedented, but the most sincere sort of testimonial to the prematurely graying twenty-eight year old after only four [full] seasons of big league baseball.”

That last sums up Rosen to a tee. It’s as if the pressure to be this role model for young Jewish kids everywhere, the hard edge, whatever, wore him down like no other. He was incredible for a few years but would end up with just one more solid season. In 1954 he hit .300/.404/.506 and hit 25 dingers in 137 games as injuries started to mount and his body began to betray him. The performance earned him 4.4 WAR as the Indians reached the mountaintop and took the pennant but wasn’t a factor in the World Series as the Tribe fell to the Giants.

That was, for all intents and purposes, the end.

Rosen would average 130 games the next two seasons and hit just .254/.357/.414, piling up just 3.2 WAR. His knees, back, hands — most of him really — were worn down from the game as well as from getting rear-ended in his car during the off-season. Oddly, one other contributing factor, something that sort of killed his “love of the game” was his manager, Hank Greenberg. Remember, Rosen wanted to be this paragon of virtue, a role model for young Jewish boys, and he himself had idolized the original “Hebrew Hammer” in Greenberg. Evidently there was a falling out between Rosen and Greenberg, who had been managing the Indians since 1951. It probably doesn’t help when your body is falling apart to suddenly want nothing to do with your boyhood idol, especially when you have to see him every day.

Like others of his era, Rosen continued in baseball. He was the GM of the Yankees during the Bronx is Burning era when Billy Martin got fired like nineteen times in three years by George Steinbrenner, and had an unimpressive run as the GM of the Astros, constantly beset by a meddling ownership and hostile fanbase. Glory would be his one more time though, running the show for the Giants from 1985-92, winning Executive of the Year in 1987 and making it to the World Series in 1989. Notably, he left the year before Barry Bonds showed up. The Tribe recognized him in ‘94 to celebrate the MVP and put him in their Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s not quite on the Feller/Thome pantheon, but the team knows what he meant to them and the fans.

Rosen’s Tribe career was a lightning bolt. For a moment he was the best player, not just on the team, but in all of baseball. You can count on one hand how many Cleveland athletes, never mind baseball players, have ever gained that level of recognition in their sport. Only nine players in Tribe history have played more than 500 games and walked away with an OPS+ over 130, and only four have piled up more than 30 WAR in fewer than 1500 games. Rosen is on both those lists.

As a dominant hitter on par with superstars and legends of his day and centerpiece player at his best, he reminds me of Grady Sizemore, but with better luck. At least for a moment. Rosen got going a bit later than Sizemore — maybe he got to tap into his physical prime a bit more — but both of them were suddenly amazing, face-of-franchise players. Then, like a light going out, they were gone, robbed of legend status by the ravages of the game.

He might not have been the most physically gifted player in Cleveland history, but the mental fortitude and hardline grit that he used to motivate and boost himself to greatness is simply second to none. Maybe that can’t get you all the way to the Hall of Fame, but for a moment, with Rosen at least, it coalesced, and he ascended to the top of the game.

Not every player becomes a star that shines for all-time, but comets that flash across the sky in one spectacular burst? They’re special in their own right.

The Indians were lucky to find one in Al Rosen.