This article was written by Ralph Berger
As Rose Rosen watched her son Al play with other kids, she frequently held her breath as Al coughed and painfully inhaled as if each gulp of air was his last. This asthmatic youngster did not seem destined to become a major-league baseball player. Rather, it looked as if he would end up in some office as a clerk or administrator. But he was resolutely determined to be a great athlete. Rosen did not only succeed as a ballplayer, but he was also a fine boxer and became an excellent major-league executive.
Rosen once talked of his encounter with Elmer Yoter, a minor-league manager in the Cleveland Indians system. Yoter told Rosen. “Go get a lunch pail, son. You’re never going to make it in this game.” Yet, toughness and determination were hallmarks of Al Rosen’s character and allowed him to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations.
Born Albert Leonard Rosen, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on February 29, 1924, he was the son of Louis and Rose Rosen. As described by his mother, Al’s father was a “handsome ne’er do well,” who ended up deserting the family after only a few years of marriage. Due to Al’s asthma, the family moved to Miami when Al was only 18 months old, providing a climate that Rose Rosen said was healthier for him. Rose worked as a salesperson in a dress shop while Al’s Poland-born grandmother, Gertrude Levine, looked after him and his brother Jerry. Encouraged to try sports, Al soon showed he had good athletic ability. As he grew up, his asthma disappeared.
The neighborhood where Rosen lived in Miami was a hardscrabble one. It was in the southwest part of the city known as Little Havana. The Rosen clan was the only Jewish family in his neighborhood, and Al spent his childhood engaged in many fights due to his ethnic origins. Toughness became his mantra as he grew up.
Rosen’s Jewish background also led to some skepticism about his athletic abilities. Rosen once said his high-school football coach asked him why he was going out for football when he was Jewish. He later said that he was determined that every Jew in America would be proud of him because of his achievements.
On one occasion, columnist and TV host Ed Sullivan wrote that “Rosen was a Catholic because he always marked a cross on home plate each time he came to bat.” Rosen responded that “it was not a cross but an x” and that he wished his name was “more Jewish” so no one would mistake him for being Catholic.
Rosen, an expert boxer, took no guff from anyone on the playing field and players avoided most confrontations with him. One time, someone on the Chicago White Sox called Rosen a Jew bastard. Rosen walked over to the Chisox dugout and calmly asked whoever called him that name to step forward. No one accepted his invitation.
Rosen normally went by the nickname, Flip, which some said was gained as a loose- wristed softball pitcher while a teenager. Others say it was the way that athletic Rosen passed a basketball.
In high school, Rosen became an outstanding baseball player. He looked up to Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg, who also was Jewish, as his favorite players. Rosen briefly attended the University of Florida in 1941 and 1942 before opting to leave school to try professional baseball. He was signed to the Thomasville, North Carolina, team in the North Carolina State League, the lowest level in the minors, and earned $90 a month before World War II intervened. Al joined the Navy in 1942 and saw action in the South Pacific. He navigated an assault boat in the initial landing on Okinawa in the bitter battle for the island. In 1946, he left the Navy as a lieutenant and returned to his emerging baseball career.
Al began in earnest to pursue his quest to make it to the majors. Because the Thomasville club was under contract to the Indians, Rosen remained property of the team. He was assigned by the Indians in 1946 to play for the Pittsfield Electrics in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a team in the Canadian-American League. He batted .323 with 16 homers and 86 runs batted in and was voted the league’s outstanding rookie. He gained a new nickname, the “Hebrew Hammer,” for his fine minor-league hitting.
In 1947, Rosen moved to the Oklahoma City Indians of the competitive Texas League. There he set the league on fire by batting .349, with 186 hits, 141 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .619. Rosen was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player and had what was considered one of the finest seasons in Texas League history.
The Cleveland Indians took notice, and Rosen was on the Indians roster for a brief period at the start of the 1948 season. Rosen, a third baseman, was competing for a position against the aging but still-formidable Ken Keltner, who had won the hearts of the Indian fans with his sterling play and for his defensive gems that helped stop the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio in 1941. Keltner held on to third base and Rosen was sent down to the Kansas City Blues, a Triple A team in the American Association.
On July 26 and 27, 1948, Rosen clouted five consecutive homers for Kansas City. Batting .327 that year, more honors came his way as he was voted the league’s Rookie of the Year. At the end of the 1948 season, Rosen was recalled to the Indians and served as a pinch hitter for the American League Champions in the World Series, going 0 for 1 against the Boston Braves.
In 1949, Rosen played 23 games for the Indians but spent most of the year with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. Rosen played there with several future major leaguers including Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Al Smith.
In 1950, Ken Keltner was finally slowed by age and relinquished the third-base position to Rosen. Cleveland fans, who still adored Keltner, at first were skeptical of the change. But Rosen rose to the challenge and set a rookie record at the time by blasting 37 homers to take the A.L. home run title. Rosen also led the league in assists with 322. Batting .287, Rosen walked 100 times, drove in 116 runs and scored 100 runs with an on-base percentage of .405.
Rosen’s assault on American League pitching tailed off in 1951. Playing in all 154 games, he tied a major league record by slugging four bases-loaded homers. But his average slipped to .265, and he belted only 24 home runs, although still managing to drive in 102 runs.
Unhappy with his 1951 performance, Rosen took a long vacation to South America and then returned to prepare his mind and body for the 1952 season. He worked on getting his legs in shape. He had played golf in previous years but this year he instead worked out at the Miami minor-league ballpark to stay in condition. He was told by another well-known athlete, golfer Sammy Snead, that it was best to give up golf to be a better baseball player. Snead told Rosen, “You don’t see me swinging a baseball bat.”
In 1952, Rosen improved his performance. He scored 101 runs, had 171 hits and drove in 105 runs with a .302 batting average. This was a glimmer of what he would accomplish in 1953. During the off-season, he again heeded Snead’s advice, working hard to get his legs in shape but not swinging any golf clubs.
Nineteen fifty-three was Rosen’s banner year. Sparked by a lusty .336 average, Rosen barely missed out on the Triple Crown. On his last at bat, he apparently had beaten out a ball hit to third base that would have given him the Triple Crown. Umpire Hank Soar felt otherwise and called Rosen out. After the game, Soar was questioned about the call. “He missed the bag,” Soar said. Rosen agreed he would have been safe had he not missed the bag. Thus Mickey Vernon, who batted .337 with Washington, won the A.L. batting championship. Rosen slugged 45 homers and driving in 145 runs and had to settle for those titles.
Some commentators believed the Senators made certain Vernon would not come to bat in the ninth inning of his final game of the year, thus ensuring him the batting title. According to accounts, the Senators’ Mickey Grasso slammed a double and then was picked off second base. Then Keith Thomas singled and was thrown out at second attempting to stretch his single into a double, thereby recording the game’s final out.
Rosen’s was voted unanimously the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1953, the first player since Hank Greenberg in 1935 to receive all first-place MVP votes. As Milton Gross of the New York Post put it, “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.”
Injuries began to hamper Rosen during the 1954 season, limiting him to only 137 games. Rosen still managed to hit .300, slam 24 homers and drive in 102 runs, the fourth consecutive year Rosen had driven in at least 100 runs. More troubling, Cleveland fans started to get on him. However, Rosen did win the MVP award in the All-Star game that year after hitting consecutive home runs in the exhibition. More meaningfully, his Indians team won the 1954 A.L. pennant with a then-record 111 victories before falling to the N.Y. Giants in the World Series.
In 1955, playing in only 139 games, Rosen batted a lowly .244, driving in only 81 runs and hitting 21 homers. The 1956 season was no better. Rosen batted .267 with 15 homers and 61 runs batted in.
Suffering from chronic injuries, Rosen decided to call it quits as a player after the 1956 season. Among those ailments were a broken finger and a back injury caused by a rear-end collision while driving. Ironically, a falling-out with his former idol Greenberg, then the Indians’ general manager, contributed to his decision to retire. When the 1956 season ended, Greenberg wanted to slash Rosen’s contract by another $5,000 after cutting it previously from $42,500 to $37,500. Rosen also had suffered a broken finger after the Indians forced him to make a position switch to first base in 1955. Rosen was upset with Greenberg and their relationship went downhill.
Playing a total of 1,044 games, all with Cleveland, Rosen batted 3,725 times, scored 603 runs, pounded out 1,063 hits, belted 192 homers and drove in 717 runs with a lifetime batting average of .285. Al’s World Series statistics are unimpressive, as he went 3 for 14 during his 1948 and 1954 appearances. Rosen was only 32 years old when he retired. His pride would not let him go on playing and turn in what he considered sub-par performances.
Baseball life seemed over for Rosen as he traded in his uniform for a stockbroker’s pinstriped suits. For 17 years in Cleveland, the investment business was Al’s life. Most of his time was spent with Bache and Company, where he eventually rose to manager of the Cleveland office. But baseball was still in his blood, and he helped the Indians as a batting instructor each spring and by sitting on the club’s board of directors.
By 1973, Rosen had left the investment business for a job with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. After five years at the casino, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner asked Rosen to become president and chief operating officer of the Yankees. Rosen accepted the offer in 1978 and spent a triumphant yet tumultuous year working with Yankees manager Billy Martin and Steinbrenner.
According to an article by Howard Cosell, Rosen and Martin had made a gentleman’s agreement just before the All-Star game in 1978 to stick together against some of the decrees issued by Steinbrenner. Martin then made his infamous remarks about slugger Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner that, “one’s a born liar; the other’s convicted.” Rosen either was forced to fire Martin or Martin resigned. Either way, Rosen replaced Martin with an old friend, former teammate Bob Lemon. The Yanks went on to win the 1978 A.L. pennant and World Series. Media sources believed Rosen spent more time in 1978 settling feuds between Martin and Steinbrenner than on baseball matters.
In 1979, Martin had returned as Yankee manager. Martin told Steinbrenner that he would no longer communicate to him through Rosen, complaining that messages passed through Rosen were distorted. Now that Rosen had effectively been removed as a barrier to Steinbrenner, Martin outranked everyone in the front office.
The first real test of who had Steinbrenner’s ear occurred when Rosen authorized that a game between the Yankees and California Angels be played earlier in the day to accommodate a national telecast. Martin wanted the game to start at its regular time, and Steinbrenner sided with Martin. The so-called gentleman’s agreement between Rosen and Martin was officially dead. Rosen’s duties were almost entirely now business-related and the baseball part was taken from him. Rosen chafed under this situation, one of a long line of executives in the Yankees office who felt limited by Steinbrenner’s micro-managing Al resigned on July 19, 1979, only a year and a half into his Yankee position.
After Rosen left the Yankees, he was hired as supervisor of credit operations at another casino, Bally’s in Atlantic City. But Rosen’s tenure there was troubled when he authorized a $2.5 million loan to four casinos that had been defrauded in a scam. Five people were arrested in a probe. Rosen was not arrested but admitted he had used bad judgment in authorizing the loans.
Rosen was not out of baseball for long. Two weeks after the Houston Astros lost a playoff series to the Philadelphia Phillies in October 1980, Al Rosen replaced Tal Smith as Astros president and general manager. However, this experience did not start happily for Rosen, due to the controversial nature of Smith’s firing. The Astros had just completed the team’s first playoff appearance since the franchise had launched in 1962. The playoff series was exciting and well-played, and Smith had been named Major League Executive of the Year.
Rosen encountered a hostile press and a hostile fandom. Astros owner John McMullen, already not well liked in Houston, suffered an insurrection from the team’s 20 limited owners for forcing out Smith, and McMullen eventually ceded sole authority to make decisions regarding the club. Rosen was on the hot seat again. Tony Siegle, an assistant to Smith whom Rosen kept as part of his administrative staff, had this to say: “General Santa Ana received a friendlier welcome from the state of Texas than Al did.”
McMullen and the minority stockholders were at constant odds, with many shareholders wanting to oust Rosen and reinstate Smith. Adding to the tumult, Rosen learned he would need open-heart surgery. Rosen underwent the operation and came through successfully.
Unfortunately, Rosen never had much control over Astros affairs. Rosen, considered a conservative general manager, was constrained by ownership in his attempts to deal players. Through all the infighting, the team was relatively successful in Rosen’s time there. The Astros finished second in the National League West in 1981, fifth in 1982, third in 1983, third in 1984 and third in 1985, winning a total of 386 games and losing 372 games. Rosen eventually left the team in September 1985.
That same month in 1985, Rosen was hired as president and general manager of the San Francisco Giants, a last-place team that year. He helped resuscitate a moribund franchise through his dealings, culminating in a N.L. West title in 1987. Rosen’s stint with the Giants lasted through the 1992 season. During his tenure, the Giants won 589 games while losing 475. In 1987, Rosen was chosen Major League Executive of the Year. The Giants again finished first in the National League West in 1989 and won the N.L. Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs but were swept in the World Series by the Oakland A’s 4 games to 0.
Rosen then retired to his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Rosen’s personal life had been stricken with tragedy on May 4, 1971, when his wife, the former Teresa (Terry) Ann Blumberg, fell to her death from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia under mysterious circumstances; married in 1952, they had three children. Understandably, Rosen prefers not to talk about this painful event.
Al Rosen and his second wife Rita (nee Kallman), who calls him Flip, have been married 34 years. Rosen occasionally consults for baseball teams, including a stint with the Yankees as special assistant to the general manager in 2001 and 2002. When he is feeling good, he plays golf. Rosen, born on February 29, jokes that he doesn’t get to celebrate his birthday that often. On his 80th birthday he said, “By all rights, I’m only going to be 20. Heck, I’m not even legal yet.”
In 1994, the Indians held a special celebration honoring Rosen’s 1953 unanimous MVP Award, and all five of Rosen’s children were in attendance at Jacobs Field. In 2006, Rosen also was inducted into the Indians’ Hall of Fame. Rosen also is a member of the Cleveland Hall of Fame, the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Texas League Hall of Fame.
Al’s strength and determination to overcome any and all obstacles was the key factor in his rise to becoming a star ballplayer and his success as a baseball administrator. Physical and mental toughness served Rosen well through all his many life challenges: desertion by his father as a toddler, asthma as a youngster, racial taunts for his Jewish background, skepticism about his baseball abilities and his later travails as a Yankee and Astros executive. He indeed was “one tough Jew,” as Rosen once said of himself, and was a ballplayer and person that all could admire.
Al Rosen died at the age of 91 on March 13, 2015.
A version of this biography is included in the book “Pitching to the Pennant: The 1954 Cleveland Indians” (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), edited by Joseph Wancho. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.
Files of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
Horvitz Peter S., and Joachim Horvitz. The Big Book of Jewish Baseball. New York: S.P.I. Books, 2001.
Neft, David S., Richard M. Cohen, and Michael L. Neft. The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Ribalow, Harold U., and Meir Ribalow. Jewish Baseball Stars. New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1984.