Legendary Tribe Slugger Rosen Dead at 91

He was the last MVP winner for the Cleveland Indians. He was the last All-Star to spend his entire career with the Tribe. And he was one of the best ever to don an Indians uniform.

Al Rosen, who died Saturday at the age of 91, was the slugging third baseman for the Indians during one of the best eras in team history. He made a brief appearance for the 1948 Indians, including an at-bat during the World Series, but didn’t break into the lineup for good until the following year.

Throughout the 1940s, Ken Keltner was the Indians’ everyday third baseman, where he impressed fans and the press with his defensive prowess (Keltner, as much as anyone, helped end Joe DiMaggio’s historic 56-game hitting streak in Cleveland in 1941). Keltner was injured in 1949, and Rosen took his place in the lineup. Rosen played in 23 games for the Indians that year, but he showed enough that the Tribe released Keltner at the end of the season.

Just getting to the majors represented an accomplishment for Rosen. A native of Spartanburg, S.C., Rosen and his mother, who raised him as a single parent after his father abandoned the family moved to Florida in search of a better climate (Rosen was asthmatic). In the 1920s and 1930s, as Rosen grew up, anti-Semitism was a common, if not tacitly-approved, practice (Rosen was asked by a football coach why he, someone who was Jewish, would even try out for the team). Rosen took up boxing as a youth as a way to combat bigots.

Rosen attended the University of Florida, but left to play baseball. He was drafted by the Indians as an amateur in 1942, but World War II intervened. Rosen enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving in the South Pacific, and saw action at the invasion of Okinawa, one of the last battles before the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan to end the war.

As a rookie in 1950, Rosen demonstrated his power hitting ability by hitting 37 home runs, a rookie record. 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.

In 1953, Rosen had what was by far his best year as a player – and possibly the best offensive year ever by a third baseman, hitting .336 and leading the league with 145 RBI and 43 home runs. Rosen was edged out by Mickey Vernon for the batting title, costing him a Triple Crown. But that fall, he was named the first unanimous most valuable player.

“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 28-year-old after only four seasons of big league baseball,” wrote Milton Gross of the New York Post.

The following year, the Indians won a record 111 games and went on to their second World Series within seven years. Rosen hit 24 home runs, drove in 102 and batted .300, but he missed 17 games because of a finger injury from fielding a ball at first base – not his normal position. However, Rosen hit two home runs for the hometown fans at the All-Star Game at Cleveland Stadium.

Rosen’s productivity was starting to taper. Hank Greenberg, whom Rosen had idolized during his playing career in Detroit, was now an executive with the Indians, and tried to cut Rosen’s salary. The two had a falling-out, and Rosen retired after the 1956 season.

He remained in Cleveland, occasionally serving as a spring training instructor for the team, but he worked as a stockbroker. When George Steinbrenner put together a group to try to buy the Indians from Vernon Stouffer, Rosen was among the investors. Steinbrenner, the scion of a Cleveland shipbuilding family, was denied the Tribe, but CBS was trying to unload the Yankees, and he snapped them up.

In 1978, Rosen became president of the Yankees, lasting a little more than a year in what was later termed the “Bronx Zoo.” He then stepped into a hornet’s nest in Houston, succeeding Tal Smith as president and general manager of the Houston Astros. The Astros had just won their first division title, and Smith was named executive of the year, but he had been fired. One of Rosen’s assistants said that General Santa Ana was better received in Texas than Rosen was.

Rosen left the team after the 1985 season – the year before the Astros won their next division title – and took the helm of the San Francisco Giants, who won two division titles and one pennant on his watch.

Although Rosen has been a member of the Indians Hall of Fame since 2006, Cooperstown never came calling, largely because his career – seven full years in the majors – was too short. But when Ralph Kiner came to the Indians in 1955, he called Rosen – on his last legs at that point – “the best all-around player I ever played with.”

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