Jewish baseball great Al Rosen dies at 91

Jewish baseball great Al Rosen dies at 91

Al Rosen, who died March 13, was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage.  
Al Rosen, who died March 13, was fiercely proud of his Jewish heritage.  

Al Rosen, who bridged the gap between Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, died March 13 at the age of 91.

Rosen played for the Cleveland Indians from 1947 through 1956, including for the 1948 World Series champions — the last time Cleveland won the title. He was a unanimous selection for the American League Most Valuable Player — the first time such an honor was achieved. 

Rosen retired after the 1956 season, at 32, due to lingering injuries suffered in a car accident a year earlier. Over a 162-game season, Rosen’s statistics extrapolate to an average of 30 home runs and he drove in 111 runs, which may have been worthy of the Hall of Fame consideration had he been able to play a bit longer. 

Indians president Mark Shapiro called Rosen “an inspiration to us all and had a special presence, strength, and intellect. His fierce competitive nature and toughness was legendary.”

Rosen was given his nickname — “The Hebrew Hammer” — because he was a former amateur boxer, a sport he reportedly picked up after being beaten up in his Miami neighborhood, where he was one of the few Jewish boys. His boyhood idol was Detroit Tigers’ first baseman Hank Greenberg, who famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. Greenberg later became general manager of the Indians while Rosen was a player.

Following his on-field career, Rosen worked in the front offices of the Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, and the New York Yankees. He won the Sporting News Executive of the Year in 1987 while with the Giants, becoming the only person in baseball be selected as MVP and Executive of the Year.

Marty Appel, who had been the Yankees public relations director prior to Rosen’s tenure, told NJ Jewish News that Rosen could have had a hand in forming a different history for the New York franchise.

“Although Al had been out of baseball for more than two decades when [the late team owner] George Steinbrenner coaxed him into taking the vacant presidency of the Yankees, he was widely respected throughout the game, and long considered a very smart, very astute figure. Some years before, as a friend of Mr. Steinbrenner, he had almost enabled him to buy the Indians [but] at the last minute, the deal fell through.” 

Former New York Times columnist Ira Berkow, who wrote the documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, told NJJN, “Al was one of the brightest and finest people I’ve known in sports. And he was fierce about standing up for being a Jew when he faced discrimination. 

“He told me that once, while playing third base for the Cleveland Indians in a game against the Chicago White Sox, someone on the Sox bench was razzing Al and spliced it with some Jew-baiting remarks. At the end of an inning, Rosen went over to the Sox bench and challenged whoever it was saying those things to come forward. All the Sox players sat in silence. ‘No one had the guts to admit it, Rosen told me. He also said that years after that incident, Saul Rogovin, a Jewish pitcher with the Sox, told Al that he was sitting on the bench and knew who it was, but felt that, at that time, he simply couldn’t rat on a teammate. Rosen said he understood,” said Berkow.

Writer Scott Raab, born in that Ohio city, grew up a fan of his local teams. In an e-mail to NJJN, Raab, now a resident of Glen Ridge, said, “To a Jewish boy in 1950s Cleveland, Al Rosen was much more than a local or tribal hero. When he retired, in 1956, I was four, and already he had ascended to myth. A soldier, a boxer, a bona fide major-league All-Star — and a Jew, strong and savvy. Rosen was an exemplar, not an archetype. God rest his soul.”

According to sports historian Bob Wechsler, Hal Schacker — who appeared in six games for the Boston Braves in 1945 — becomes the oldest Jewish ex-Major Leaguer; Schacker turns 90 on April 6.

JTA contributed to this article. 

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