Rosen was a Missed Base Away from Being Tribe’s Triple Crown Winner
Vince Guerrieri | On 28, Apr 2014
Two years ago, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera became the first major league baseball player to win the offensive triple crown – leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average – since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.
No Indians player has ever won the triple crown, but in 1953, Al Rosen came close – and some say he was cheated out of it by another former Indian.
Rosen made his debut with the Indians in 1948, and spent part of that season and the next in the majors. By 1950, he was the team’s starting third baseman, and demonstrated his power hitting ability by setting what was then a rookie record with 37 home runs.
Rosen had a bit of a sophomore slump the next year, with only 24 home runs and a .265 batting average. After training in the offseason in an era when most players got jobs after the baseball season was over, Rosen came back and hit .302, and led the league in total bases. He started to take on the nickname used by his boyhood idol, Hank Greenberg, of the Hebrew Hammer. It was a less enlightened time.
In 1953, Rosen far and away led the league in RBI. The Washington Senators’ Mickey Vernon was a distant second. Vernon spent parts of four seasons with the Senators before he was dealt with Early Wynn to the Indians after the 1948 season. In June 1950, he was dealt back to the Senators. Vernon was leading Rosen in batting average, hitting a robust .336. Rosen was batting .329.
And going into the final series with the Tigers, Rosen was one home run behind Gus Zernial for the league lead. He was also trailing Vernon for batting average. Indians manager Al Lopez batted Rosen leadoff for the series, hoping to get him a few extra at-bats. Rosen went on a tear, hitting nine-for-15, including two home runs that gave him the league lead.
Going into the final day of the season, Rosen trailed Vernon in batting average, .333 to .336. But in his final at-bat, Rosen had a chance to win the batting title and thus, the triple crown. And the Tigers appeared willing to help him do it – or were making a mental lapse. The infielders were playing back to the grass. Coach Tony Cucinello pointed this out to Rosen, but he wanted to earn a batting title, not have it given to him.
Rosen hit a chopper to third baseman Jerry Priddy, who threw to Tigers first baseman/manager Fred Hutchinson. It was a close play, but umpire Hank Soar called Rosen out. It was Rosen’s last at-bat of the season. He finished at what was rounded off to .336.
“I missed the bag,” Rosen said later. “Soar called me out, and I’m glad he did. I wouldn’t sleep a night all winter if I knew I won the batting championship on a call I knew was wrong.”
Meanwhile, at Griffith Stadium, Vernon went 2-for-4, putting his average at .337. And then, with the game lost and the season drawing to a close, Vernon’s teammates made it a point to ensure he didn’t come up to bat again, hacking at bad pitches and running themselves out of innings. The game ended with Vernon in the on-deck circle – although another at-bat probably wouldn’t have made a difference.
It was the second season where Vernon hit over .300 – and in both seasons he did, he won batting titles. Rosen had to settle for being the first unanimous American League MVP.
In 1954, injuries hampered Rosen’s productivity as the Indians roared away to the pennant, winning what was then an American League record 111 games. Rosen was named the All-Star MVP, hitting two home runs in a game at Cleveland Stadium.
His productivity trailed off after that, and he retired following the 1956 season – after a falling-out with Greenberg, who was by then an executive with the Indians. Rosen was out of baseball for more than 20 years, working as a stockbroker – although he did serve as a hitting instructor for the Indians in spring training. He was part of a partnership formed by Cleveland boy and shipbuilding scion George Steinbrenner to buy the Indians in 1973, but the deal fell through. After Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees, he hired Rosen to serve as general manager in 1978, as the Yankees made their third straight World Series appearance and won their second straight Fall Classic.
He resigned a little more than a year later, as the Bronx Zoo became too much for him to take. He later served as general manager for the Houston Astros, spending five tumultuous years there, and the San Francisco Giants, where he helped build a team that ended up going to the World Series in 1989.
Rosen’s a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the Indians Hall of Fame.
Photo: Sports Illustrated