Hank Greenberg had the war. Sandy Koufax had injuries. Al Rosen, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 91, had both.
Rosen, who spent the entirety of his ten-year big-league career with the Cleveland Indians, isn't the best player you've never heard of. He never garnered serious Hall of Fame consideration and is rarely talked about as one of the sport's tantalizing "what-ifs." And while he's remembered mostly as one of the all-time great Jewish baseball players, he's a distant third behind Greenberg and Koufax, and anyway the only people talking about this are a few Jewish people, who talk about it incessantly.
Still, at the dawn of the 1950's, the four-time All-Star was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Rosen was a muscular slugger with a great eye who could more than handle the defensive responsibilities of third base. He boxed in his spare time, and that sport couldn't have provided a better metaphor for the way he approached his day job. In 1953, Rosen was the AL MVP and very nearly won the Triple Crown. The next season, he led Cleveland to the World Series, where they lost to the New York Giants. Two years later, he was out of the game (voluntarily, but still) and working as a stockbroker. He would eventually return as a hitting coach for the Indians and later as an executive for the Yankees, Astros, and Giants. His second act in baseball was arguably more of a success than his first, which is saying a lot.
Al Rosen wasn't unsung, really. He was just lost in the shuffle, and circumstance and history never quite allowed him to reach his full potential. Between World War II—Rosen was in the Navy for four years—and a clogged talent pipeline in Cleveland, Rosen didn't even get his start in the bigs until age 26. The injuries that slowed him down were nagging, aggravated by neves, never quite dramatic enough to define him. When he retired, it was out of pride. Hank Greenberg, then the Indians GM, wanted him to take a second pay cut. Rosen walked away instead. And that was the end of that.
Rosen's place in history is undeniable, but our collective memory—which requires a hook or catchy story or permanently boldfaced statistical mark—has denied it all the same. This has a lot to do with his slippery, circumstantial arc. Rosen's 1950 breakout could've come sooner, and he could've played longer; he never really attempted to mount a comeback, and instead went gently, even gladly, into that good night. Rather than running himself into the ground or playing right up to the point of utter deterioration, Rosen exited through the front door on his own volition. He was impatient, and then disillusioned. He didn't go out on top, but at the end of what seemed like a prolonged slump. He was only 32 when he left, and he never came back.
Rosen homered twice in the 1954 All Star game.
Part of what makes Rosen so elusive and compelling is that he wasn't controlled by fate. This prevents him from being a wholly sympathetic figure, in a sense; Koufax was essentially destroyed as a pitcher by his own greatness, whereas Rosen mostly ghosted. The beginning of his career was out of his hands. But the way Rosen handled discouragement, from the problems with his body up through his decision to retire, both explained and defined him.
As he told me in a 2011 interview for Tablet, "Things just began to deteriorate physically, and it became a mental thing. Instead of being something I looked forward to every day, the game became something I dreaded." For better or worse, Al Rosen called his own shots. You have to wonder if having his career delayed by matters outside of his control (geopolitics, life as a pre-free agency prospect) made him that much more determined to determine himself.
Then there's Rosen's Judaism, which outstrips his reputation as a player. Rosen was anything but a token. In between Greenberg and Koufax, he was the Great Jewish Hope, a reminder that the Chosen People—or a chosen few within that cohort—could hang with anyone on the diamond.
His best years coincided with baseball's integration, which might be why his role as ethnic standard-bearer gets overlooked. Or maybe, in between Greenberg's breakthrough and Koufax's transcendence, there had to be a player whose excellence was familiar, even ordinary. Rosen faced anti-Semitism and wasn't afraid to stand up to it, but his real role was bridging the gap between hostility and acceptance.
That also might be why Rosen doesn't have the same folk hero status as Koufax or Greenberg. Granted, he wasn't as supremely talented, but he was a great player by any other measure. It's also puzzling that Greenberg and Koufax are worshipped in part for their sacrifices and woe—a very Jewish impulse—while Rosen fails to register in part because he just didn't play enough.
Maybe it's that note of defiance at the end. Rosen wasn't a quitter and he certainly loved the game. But no one was going to punk him, not even Hank Greenberg. Al Rosen left on his own terms, of his own volition. There's no Old Testament doom or gloom there. Maybe, on some theological level, Rosen's story just isn't Jewish enough. He was the opposite of fatalistic.
Rosen's passing gives us a chance to correct this, to note him as both underrated and underappreciated. Being a Jewish athlete limits, rather than elevates, him; not being Koufax or Greenberg is hardly grounds for dismissal. No one compares favorably to all-time greats, after all, and no athlete looks good when Hall of Famers are his only peers. When Rosen's career started, or why it ended, doesn't help him; it shouldn't hurt him, either.
There's a difference between being invisible and flying under the radar. And there's a difference between flying under the radar and hanging out in a blind spot. It's disingenuous to turn Al Rosen into a legend after the fact; manufacturing that kind of story would be sentimental and pointless. When an athlete passes away and we look at his career, the best thing we can do is be honest. And if we're honest about Al Rosen, we're left with an athlete who could've been more, might not have been enough, and for all of it, left us with plenty.