SABR

Sy Rosenthal

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Simon Rosenthal was one of only 16 Red Sox players who was actually born in the city of Boston and -- joining Jack Slattery -- one of only two to both live and die in Boston. He garnered more at-bats for the Red Sox than any other Boston native, 357 of them during the years 1925 and 1926. Sy (as he spelled his nickname) saw service with the Sox for two seasons, playing just about every day after a September call-up in 1925 and then appearing in 104 games the following year. His lifetime average is .266 with four homers and 42 RBIs.

He was the first Jewish player on the Red Sox. Simon's parents were Philip Rosenthal, who had emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1885, and Anna Gottfried, who had come from Austria two years later. The Orthodox Jewish family lived at 504 Howland Street in Boston, not far from Franklin Park. Philip was listed in the 1910 census as a builder of houses. Anna had no employment listed; she was presumably busy raising their five children -- Nettie (19), Hyman (14), Israel (11), Moses (8), and the youngest, Simon (6). [Note: The family's Orthodox status was mentioned in the Boston Globe on September 25, 1925.]

Aside from Simon, Si, and Sy, the Boston Post called him Simie. He was also known as Rosey, Rosy, and Rosie -- and, in box scores, sometimes as R'thal and at least once in the Herald as R's'nth'l.

Simon was born in Boston on November 13, 1903, and graduated from Dorchester High School. He played semipro ball in Boston during 1920 and 1921, attracting an invitation to spring training with the Red Sox in 1922. Sy was first spotted on the sandlots of Franklin Park by Stonewall Jackson, the announcer at Fenway Park, who helped him get a tryout with the Red Sox. He was signed by Boston coach Hugh Duffy. He first appears in Boston Globe baseball action during a March 16 intrasquad game in Little Rock, playing for the Yannigans against the Red Sox regulars. He had two hits and the newspaper noted, "Rosenthal's hits are right on the line and curve pitching bothers him little." The March 31 paper lamented that Rosenthal was "applying himself and is getting along famously," and "It really is too bad that the Sox have no minor league team farm." There were ways to develop players, even in the days before the birth of the farm system, and Rosenthal was ultimately sent to the Hartford Senators for more seasoning.

Before the assignment, though, he traveled with the Red Sox as they broke spring training and played games while heading back toward Boston. He rated subhead status in the April 8 Globe, reporting an intrasquad game in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when Rosenthal and the Goofs (Yannigans) beat the Regulars, 6-1. The headline read JOHNNY RING AND ROSENTHAL FEATURE FOR ROOKIES. LATTER CRACKS OUT A HOME RUN, ALSO A DOUBLE. The game was played on a racetrack that had been reconfigured for the day's exhibition game. Batting against Allen Russell of the Regulars, center fielder Rosenthal doubled in one run in the third and his three-run homer in the seventh gave him four runs batted in for the day. The paper noted that "Rosey" made "four nice catches in center field."

Playing in 134 games for Hartford under former Red Sox player Jack Coffey, Rosenthal hit .279 with 10 homers for the Eastern League team in 1922 and was named as one of the three outfielders on the league's all-star team. His first home run came at Pittsfield's Waconah Park on May 17 and rated an eight-column headline in the next day's Hartford Courant: "SI" ROSENTHAL ENTERS HARTFORD'S HOMERUN CIRCLE WHILE ON RAMPAGE AT PITTSFIELD. Batting fifth and playing right field, Rosenthal singled, doubled, and homered, driving in four runs in the 5-2 Hartford win. His two-run eighth-inning homer was dubbed "one of the longest drives in the history of the local park. ... The youngster drove the pellet high and dry over the right-field wall."

Sy lost a little time after injuring himself sliding back into first base on June 14, but by June 25 homered in a game against Bridgeport. The 19-year-old, invariably described in the Courant as "Red Sox recruit" Rosenthal, led Hartford with four homers for the season.

In late February 1923, Rosenthal was sent on option to the Albany Senators; it might have been a bit confusing to have two Eastern League teams known as the Senators, but such was the case. "He is regarded as a good prospect," noted a Boston Globe mention on the 25th of the Boston boy being farmed out. Sy played for Albany (apparently in two separate stints bracketing a sojourn with the Pittsfield Hillies, also in the Eastern League), batting .338 with 15 homers.

Red Sox spring training was held in San Antonio in 1924. Rosenthal, Camp Skinner, and Dick Reichle (all of whom made the majors with Boston) had been sent to the San Antonio Bears in the fall of 1923 in a deal that brought Boone, Todt, Fuller, Gross, and Marshall to Boston. Sy started 1924 like a house afire, and the May 1 Sporting News reported him as "the talk of the league" with 11 consecutive hits at one point, and an average of around .750. He was drawing Jewish fans to the ballpark there, too. In a Boston Globe article headlined "Red Sox May Have A Mexican Indian With Them Next Year" -- discussing Rosey's fellow San Antonio outfielder Leo Najo -- Melville Webb mentioned Rosenthal while describing Najo's local appeal: "the Mexicans are getting together to root for him just as hard as the Jewish fans are for Simon Rosenthal, the Boston boy, who has already become a San Antonio favorite." [Boston Globe, April 5, 1924. Najo, from Harlingen, was of Yaqui Indian descent. He is the subject of Noe Torres's Baseball's First Mexican-American Star: The Amazing Story of Leo Najo (Llumina Press, 2006).]

On May 6, the Globe noted that Red Sox manager Lee Fohl was continuing to follow the progress of both Bears ballplayers and predicted, "The Red Sox will have 'Rosey' in another year if he continues the fine pace he has been setting so far."

A broken leg set Rosenthal back but he hit .376 in 44 games, playing error-free outfield ball. By June 1925, still with San Antonio, he was hitting .331 with real power: 21 homers. Rosenthal's contract was purchased by the Red Sox on June 20, planning for a call-up to the big league club come September. The Dorchester boy made the move back to Boston on September 2, departing San Antonio with his new bride, the former Josephine Lubel of San Antonio, a stenographer and daughter of Rabbi Henry Lubel. They had been married the evening before. The couple arrived in Boston on September 7, and Rosey first saw action the very next day.

Rosey appeared in 19 games for the Red Sox starting on September 8, when he led off both games of a doubleheader against the Yankees, playing left field. He slapped a single off Bob Shawkey his first time up, but wound up having himself a 1-for-9 afternoon, with one error. Mel Webb was sympathetic, declaring him "naturally being a little over-anxious out there in front of the home town folks," adding that he was "likely to do pretty well once he gets his bearings." [Boston Globe, September 9, 1925] The Globe's James O'Leary said Rosey "appeared to be a little tired" after just arriving from San Antonio. The paper ran a large photograph of Rosenthal.

Despite playing two full games in his first full day back in town, Rosenthal had a little more pep in his step the next day, on the 9th. The Sox and Yanks were tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth. Rosenthal was 0-for-4, but drew a base on balls, and then scored from first on a "splendid burst of speed" when Ira Flagstead doubled down the third-base line. Sy just barely made it: "Leifield, who was coaching at third, took a desperate chance and sent Rosenthal home, and the latter barely beat the ball in, upsetting Bengough as he slid into the plate with the winning run." [Boston Globe, September 10, 1925]

It didn't take long for the Red Sox to fete a local; they needed all the help they could get to draw fans at any point in the decade of the 1920s. Though he had been with the team less than three weeks, the Sox nonetheless hosted a Simon Rosenthal Day on September 26. The Post called him a "local prodigy" and "one the hardest-hitting recruits that has come to the Boston team in years, and the first local protégé to wear a Red Sox uniform since the debut of Harold Janvrin in 1911."

The Herald had summarized Rosenthal's brief major-league career to date in its issue of the 26th: "'Rosy' has more than made good. He looks better on fly balls in right field than any other man the Hose have had there since Harry Hooper's hey-day."

A committee headed by Morris Bronstein was said to have raised the sum of $2,000 to present to Rosenthal between games. If so, he might have wondered what happened to the other half, as the Boston Herald ran a photograph of him receiving a small bag said to contain $1,000 worth of gold from attorney Harry Gutterman, who spoke of "the clean character and high ideals to which all his friends attest." A six-column headline read: BEST RED SOX PLAY IS ROSENTHAL's CLUTCH AT HOME PLATE and the sports page cartoon showed "Rosie" receiving the bag of gold, with a closeup of the bag marked "1000 berries," and one bystander saying in an aside, "Now Rosie knows how it feels t'git th' gate." [Boston Herald, September 27, 1925]

"In the Bag for Simie" ran the headline on the photograph published in the Post to accompany the game story that touched on "our only local hero." Red Sox president Robert Quinn was active in organizing the event, and Red Sox announcer Walter E. Jackson was the treasurer. Rosenthal was 2-for-5 with a double in the first game, but the right fielder was held hitless in four at-bats in the second; the Herald said he'd "sparked the ball lustily, but it would not go in safely for him." The White Sox beat Boston in both games.

Leading off a game against Babe Ruth and the Yankees, Rosenthal played left field and combined with center fielder Ira Flagstead for a strong showing in Boston's 5-4 win. The pair earned a Herald headline, FIRM OF ROSENTHAL AND FLAGSTEAD LETS SOX BEAT YANKEES, 5-4. Rosenthal was hitless in the 4-4 game, but drew a two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth. When Flaggy hit one down the left-field line, Rosenthal was off with the pitch and never let up. Ruth fumbled a bit in fielding the ball, then threw to the cutoff man, who fired home. "Si hurled himself at the plate, cut Bengough's legs from under him, the ball rolled loosely around and the game was over."

Rosenthal hit for a .264 average in 72 at-bats for the 1925 Red Sox. He hit five doubles, two triples, and no homers, and drove in eight runs.

Sy spent the 1926 season with the Sox, getting 285 at-bats in 104 games and a .267 average with four home runs and 34 RBIs. His first major-league homer put the Sox in the lead, driving in two runs in the eighth inning of the April 25 game against Washington, but the Senators tied it up and the game went into extra innings before Boston won it. His best day came a month later, on May 25, facing the Yankees -- a two-homer day. Rosenthal hit a ninth-inning two-run homer in the first game, making it a more respectable 5-3 loss. In the second game, he hit another two-run homer, this time helping close the gap to 5-4. Boston lost both games and Rosey was upstaged by Babe Ruth, who got the headlines with his 16th homer (this was still May), called the "longest homer ever made at Fenway Park" -- nearly leaving the right-field bleachers as they were configured at the time.

Sy struck back a bit at the Yankees on September 8. The Red Sox had dropped 17 games in a row to New York, but Rosenthal had three hits and drove in three runs in the 5-2 win, which finally snapped the losing streak. His homer on the 21st, which turned out to be the last of his major-league career, was all that prevented a 6-0 shutout in Cleveland. On December 21, Rosenthal was released outright to the Louisville Colonels.

After 1926, Rosenthal spent the rest of his baseball career in the minor leagues, beginning with the Colonels in 1927, and wending his way through Chattanooga, Dallas, Atlanta, Mobile-Knoxville (the franchise moved in midseason), Galveston, back to Atlanta, Quincy in the Mississippi Valley League, Dayton, Beckley, and ending in 1935 with Peoria. In 1931, he had a busy year, starting in February with the Atlanta Crackers, then on Galveston's roster briefly, with Mobile and Knoxville, and then back to Atlanta in December. Only in 1929 and 1930 did he play nearly a full season's worth of games.

An injured foot hampered Rosenthal's performance in the big leagues, but he averaged close to .333 over his nine years in the minors. From 1928 through 1931, he recorded averages of .331, .365, .339, .355, and .347 in Class A ball in the Texas League and Southern Association.

After returning to Boston, Rosenthal went into business and played for the Wolf Clothiers team in the Boston Park League for a number of years. He was active in supervising sports for youth in both South Boston and Dorchester.

Both Sy and his son Buddy (Irwin Rosenthal) joined to fight in World War II. Just as his son was a bit underage, so was Sy a bit over. Buddy joined the Marine Corps. The 38-year-old Sy attempted to enlist after Pearl Harbor, but was at first turned down on account of some loose cartilage in his knee dating back to baseball days. After being rejected, he paid for knee surgery to have the cartilage removed and had some expensive dental work done so he could pass the fitness tests, and he ultimately made the grade despite his age. He was inducted into the Navy on September 22, 1942. "The next time I tried, they accepted me," he told The Sporting News on September 24, 1947. "So I liquidated my business -- I had been manufacturing tin cans in South Boston -- and pretty soon I found myself on a minesweeper."

Both Rosenthals suffered great tragedy during the war. "I had been corresponding with Buddy pretty regularly," Sy remembered, "On putting in at Norfolk in February 1944, I found a mass of my letters to him had been returned. And I had received no word from him in a long time. Then I learned of his death."

Buddy was killed in the Pacific theater on Christmas Day 1943 or the day after, during the assault to capture the airfields at Cape Gloucester on the island of New Britain in the Solomon Islands. The Marine Corps lost 325 men in the battle. Irwin's body was returned home in May 1949.

Rosenthal later recounted his understanding of what had occurred, after his son had gone ashore with the Marines. "They went through some tall grass ...and, as they went along, they couldn't locate the Japs. Finally, as a means of spotting the Japs, my boy deliberately exposed himself for an instant. The instant was too long. A second later he was dead. ....He was only a few months over 17."

Sy reportedly served aboard ship during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, but several months later while assigned to the minesweeper USS Miantonomah, Rosenthal was seriously injured on September 25, 1944, when a German mine blew a hole in the ship's starboard side, just behind the bridge. The ship sank just one mile off the coast of France at LeHavre, taking 58 members of the crew with it.

Rosenthal was rendered paraplegic, and returned home after three months in a French hospital. He used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. On September 13, 1947, the Red Sox held a "Day" for Rosenthal. The money raised enabled the Rosenthal Day committee to present him a deed for a new house specially fitted with wheelchair ramps and other fixtures. News stories at the time stated that Rosenthal had been a veteran of World War I as well, but given his age at the time, this seems very unlikely.

During Sy's "day," a Marine Corps bugler played taps from the pitcher's mound in honor of Buddy Rosenthal, and both Sy and his wife wept openly. He'd enjoyed a visit to the Red Sox clubhouse, where he greeted many players he'd known from years earlier, and admitted that his life was "pretty tough." "Oh, sure," he added, "you put on an act and say you're feeling great, but it's tough, real tough." After a moment's reflection as he glanced at his legs, he was quick to add: "As you get older, you go through life philosophically. The two kids beside me on that ship were blown to bits. I've still got my friends. Come on, let's get out to the field. I feel great."

Though of modest means, Rosenthal himself was known for charitable work of his own, helping raise money for a number of causes. His obituary reports two such acts. In 1952, while in the Cushing Hospital in Framingham, he learned of a Needham family whose house had been destroyed by fire, and from his hospital bed, Rosenthal offered them the use of his home.

In 1966, he worked with the "Negro priest" Rev. Charles D. Burns to raise $55,000 for a school gymnasium at St. Augustine seminary at Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. It was an ecumenical effort, involving a Protestant minister and a Catholic institution. The seminary was, in the 1920s, the first Roman Catholic seminary to accept African Americans. Rosenthal said, "We wouldn't have to set up a Brotherhood Week if we observed the basic tenets of our faith, whatever it may be. If you have good will in your heart, you don't need a special week."

He was also honored in Boston at a testimonial dinner, given the title "Big Leaguer All the Way." The testimonial drew more than 500 to the Sherry-Biltmore Hotel on April 20, 1960. The toastmaster was Al Schacht, and it was attended by managers Billy Jurges of the Red Sox and Casey Stengel of the Yankees, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, a number of religious leaders, and the umpire in chief of the American League, Cal Hubbard.

A story in the Jewish Advocate reported that "there is barely an hour when he is free from pain" but that he devoted his life to trying to help his fellow man. The account detailed the help he had given a boy afflicted with polio, a girl who was blind, and two sisters stricken with cerebral palsy. All three cases led to his involvement in fundraising for the respective causes. He was three times president of the New England Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, and active in numerous other organizations.

Sy was also active in assisting a number of Little League teams in the Greater Boston area. The Boston Lodge of Elks noted in 1962 that, due to his extensive work with Little Leaguers (though himself wheelchair-bound), the Sy Rosenthal Little League Stadium was erected in Dorchester.

There was some interest expressed in his life story by people in Hollywood, and Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing wrote an effusive letter on the cardinal's letterhead. Noting that Sy was living at the West Roxbury Veterans Hospital, he termed him "a talented baseball player, genuine patriot, hero of America during the Second World War, and a man of great courage" whose "love of God [was] reflected in his love for neighbor." He added, "'Old Sy' is a man after my own heart." [Letter to Sam Kane dated February 20, 1962]

Father Owen McGrath of the Columban Fathers sent a letter of his own, in part reading:

The tragedies in his life would have embittered most men; they have ennobled Old Sy. He loved God and his fellow man. In spite of his handicap and constant pain, he radiates happiness. He seems to possess heroic fortitude, but in our eyes his greatest quality is generosity of heart. He is just miserable when he is not doing good for his fellow man. His various charitable commitments would be exhausting for a much younger person. How he manages to always find time to visit the sick, pay friendly calls and give his inspiring talks to clubs and church organizations, we can never understand. Would that his good exampled were not only admired, but imitated.

Rosenthal's favorite expression was, according to Father McGrath, "Keep the faith and keep smiling." Admired by the Catholic clergy and numerous civic and religious leaders, he never forgot his own upbringing. In The Big Book of Jewish Baseball, Rosenthal is quoted on being signed by Hugh Duffy: "Duffy wanted me to change my name to Rose because it would fit easier in box scores. But I told him that I wouldn't do it. I was born with the name Rosenthal. It won't make any difference if my name is Rose, Rosenthal, or O'Brien. I'll rise and fall on my own name."

Sy Rosenthal died in the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, of a coronary occlusion on April 7, 1969. His funeral was held four days later at Temple B'nai Moshe, Brighton.

Sources

Thanks to Martin Abramowitz of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. for supplying some of the information regarding Rosenthal's later life. Other sources are noted within the text.

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