February 29, 1924 is the birthdate of baseball player Al Rosen, whose slugging records during his decade with the Cleveland Indians included batting in more than 100 runs a season for five years running. Writing about Rosen in the book “Jewish Jocks,” David Margolick put him No. 3 in the “triumvirate of the greatest Jewish baseball players of all time,” exceeded only by Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
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Albert Leonard Rosen was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina to Louis Rosen and the former Rose Levine. After Louis, whom his wife later described as a “handsome ne’er do well,” left the family, Rose moved with her mother, Gertrude, and Al to Miami. She took a job as a salesperson in a dress shop, while Gertrude took care of Al and later his younger brother Jerry.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Miami had many fewer Jews than it does today, and Al often had to defend himself in the street. He also contended with childhood asthma, though he did not let it stop him from playing sports.
After a year at Miami Senior High School, Al attended the Florida Military Academy in St. Petersburg on a boxing scholarship. He started at the University of Florida, but left after a single semester when he received an offer to play baseball in the North Carolina League, the lowest level of the minor leagues.
In 1942, Rosen enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and didn’t play ball for four years. He spent the war in the Pacific, navigating an assault boat during the landing at Okinawa and finishing with the rank of lieutenant.
Rosen resumed his career in 1946, playing for the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Electrics in the Canadian-American League, where he held several batting records. After racking up impressive hitting stats at several other minor-league teams as well, Rosen moved up to the majors for good late in the 1948 season, when he joined the Indians as a pinch hitter before the World Series that year.
It was only after the retirement of Ken Keltner in 1950, however, that Rosen became the team’s starting third baseman.
Cries from the dugout
Jews were still rare in the big leagues in those days, and it was not unusual for Rosen to hear words like “sheeny” and “kike” coming from the opposition dugouts or from fans. He always responded, and was ready to “flatten” his detractors, though that was usually not necessary.
He came by his toughness honestly. In one game late in his career, his mother was in the stands when a nearby fan yelled at Al, “Go back and sell your bonds, you sheeny!” Rose is said to have stood up and smacked the man in the face with her handbag, giving him a bloody nose.
One season, the Indians were scheduled to play a double header in Detroit on Rosh Hashana. Rosen asked his rabbi at Temple Israel, Abba Hillel Silver, whether he should play. Silver told him he had to decide for himself. Rosen sat the two games out.
In his best season, 1953, Rosen entered the final game leading the league in home runs and runs batted in. He needed only one more hit at the end of the game to have the top batting average too, and thus earn the “triple crown” as batting champ. He hit the ball, but was called out by the umpire at first.
When his manager bounded onto the field to argue with the ump, Rosen told him to save his breath, acknowledging that he really had been out. He lost the batting title to the Senators’ Mickey Vernon by .001 point.
After retiring in 1956, Rosen spent 22 years as a stockbroker before returning to baseball in front-office positions with the Yankees, Astros and Giants. As president and general manager of the Giants from 1985 to 1992, he led the team from last place to the division championship in 1987, and to the National League pennant in 1989.
Rosen died on March 13, 2015 in Rancho Mirage, California, at age 91.