Mortal Gods

He had hung up his own glove by the time I was eight and sleeping snugly with my own. But the former All-Star third baseman had nevertheless become guardian angel of my baseball ambitions. After nine years with the Indians, Al Rosen had retired — perhaps even been gently nudged out the door — and become a full-time Cleveland stockbroker. I would glimpse him – repeatedly, with fascination and awe —in black-and-white footage, hitting the same unidentified home run over and over again.

My older brother still remembers hearing his name during White Sox-Indian games in the early '50s, but by 1958 he was only a name my elders once rooted for. Yet his was a magical name to a pencil-thin Jewish kid practicing scooping up short hops in front of his parents’ full-length bedroom mirror. Although the history of Jews in baseball, let alone the history of Jews, was still a mystery to me, I understood one simple thing very well: that a man with my name had recently been one of the best in the same game that I was beginning to call my own.

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The major leaguers I did see play in the ‘50s — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso — all exerted the usual influence: They were the comfortingly familiar names in the next day’s box scores, the identities we borrowed while playing stickball ("lineball," we called it in suburban Chicago), and the visible heroes and goats of our fanaticism in a town that offered us a choice between the South Side’s perennial second- and third-place finishers and the North Side’s lovable losers. Just as no man is a hero to his own valet, no major leaguer we track on a daily basis can escape our occasional disdain.

On the other hand, the unseen Al Rosen, the almost mythical carrier of my name and faith, was safe from my disappointment. Was he responsible for my love of baseball and my gift for playing it? No. Was he the reason I made my very first Little League game appearance at third base, using my father’s puffy old glove, which looked more like a challah than something to catch baseballs in? Doubtful. But did he tighten some connection between "Rosen" and "baseball," making my own aspirations more plausible, even legitimate? I think so. I knew so. Al Rosen was my silent retort to my Polish-born grandfather, who caught me watching a Cubs game on television, and said in heavily accented English, "Feh! Men playing a boys’ game!"

An interview with Al Rosen

Now, the truth is that I grew up in a world of Jewish athletes. My father’s cousin had boxed in the 1934 Maccabiah Games in Palestine and stayed there, escaping Hitler’s Final Solution. My uncle, Roy, a twitchy defensive specialist, had played in the city’s basketball championship. My best friend was a nationally-ranked junior tennis player. I was taught to skate by Vivian Joseph, who with her brother Ronnie had won three national pairs championships and a bronze medal in the 1964 Winter Olympic Games. Chicago Bears legend Sid Luckman moved across the street with his family after he retired. And I became an All-Suburban League first baseman on a championship high school team that, like the 1941 New York Giants, once managed to start four Jews in the same game.

And yet the idea persisted, indeed still persists, that Jews as a race, aiming higher in life than "boys’ games," are genetically unable to catch fly balls or hit a good high school curve ball, let alone a major league one.

"When I was in the majors," Rosen once said, "I always knew how I wanted it to be about me …. Here comes one Jewish kid that every Jew in the world can be proud of."

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Here comes one Jewish kid that every Jew in the world can be proud of.

He bristled with Jewish pride. Many Jewish major leaguers before him had changed their names. In the first 20 years of the century, Harry Kane, Phil Cooney, and Ed Corey had all been born Cohen. Henry Bostick may have played only two games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1915, but he had taken the precaution of changing his name from Henry Landers Lipschitz. In the 1930s, Hank Greenberg put an end to that practice.

But the story about Rosen was that, once in the majors, he wanted to change it to something more Jewish. He was used to standing his ground in an unfriendly world. He had been born in South Carolina, but grown up, fatherless and asthmatic, in the tough Little Havana section of Miami. He became an accomplished young boxer and had the broken noses to prove it.

I’ll slug it out with you if I have to sort of pride, not chippin

The one anecdote I heard about him as a kid filtered down from my rabbi, a rabid White Sox fan, who told of sitting in the third-base box seats at old Comiskey Park in a game against Cleveland and listening to some leather-lunged anti-Semite who viciously rode Rosen all game, but was unable to get the Indians’ third baseman’s attention. In the late innings, Rosen hit what proved to be the game-winning homer, and as he trotted around third he looked straight at the heckler and coolly flipped him the finger. The story has always been my favorite revenge anecdote, hauled out for any occasion that even remotely calls for it.

But when I asked Al Rosen himself about it,, he said from his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., "I don’t remember that one."

Ouch. I couldn’t believe I had at last worked up the nerve to call him, only to have my one well-worn anecdote about him summarily shot down.

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Let me back up for a minute. Through work, I had met one of his daughters-in-law in New York City several years ago, but even then it had taken a few years to ask her for his phone number. What do you say to the object of over 50 years of long-distance fascination? Oh, that terrifying abyss between another’s deep meaning for us and our feared insignificance to them!

When I at last called and Rosen answered on the other end, I said, "Hi, Mr. Rosen. This is Richard Rosen in New York. I believe your daughter-in-law told you I was going to call."

"Is this my nephew?" he asked.

"Inauspicious" is the word that comes to mind to describe the conversation at this point.

Once I successfully distinguished myself from his nephew, the eye doctor, things improved. His manner was gracious, his voice still strong at 88, his mind as sharp as Koufax’s breaking ball — until I made the mistake of offering him my rabbi’s story for verification.

Denied it, I hastily and sadly deleted the story from my repertoire and stumbled forward. "Well, what about the report that you once faced down the entire White Sox bench?"

"Now, that’s a true story," Rosen replied.

Will the no good sonuvabitch who’s been yelling at me step outside?

Oh, thank God! I felt like I had been defibrillated. My excitement revived at actually talking to the man who had once inhabited a realm impossibly remote for a boy. How could he still be alive when I myself was already 63?

"I had had enough," he was saying of the White Sox incident. "I detoured to their bench after the inning was over and said, ‘Will the no good sonuvabitch who’s been yelling at me step outside?’ Nobody did. The irony of it was that Saul Rogovin, the Jewish White Sox pitcher, was on the bench, knew who it was, and was torn between telling me, which he wanted to do, but couldn’t because he was a teammate. And I respected that. We always had a lot of laughs about that. Every time I saw him, he would remind me of it. But he never told me who it was."

And what about the urge to change his name?

"I never thought about actually changing my name," Rosen said, "but I made an offhanded comment one time, just so no one would ever have any doubts, that it’s too bad my name isn’t Rosenberg or Rosenstein."

Then he recalled a second confrontation that also never came to blows. "It was an incident with Matt Batts of the Red Sox" — a second-string catcher with Boston in 1950 and ’51. "I was in the field and he was on the bench." Rosen had had enough of Batts’ Jew-baiting and called timeout to advance toward the Boston dugout. "It was quelled by Bobby Doerr and the [just recently deceased] Johnny Pesky. Immediately. The two of them were gentlemen through and through." (I later inform Rosen that Batts is still alive, at 90, in San Antonio, just in case he would like to settle the score.)

"You lived with these things," Rosen added, "because it was part of the process."

By "process," Rosen is referring to the remarkable social progress American has made in the last 60 years in terms of the unacceptability of public racism and anti-Semitism that was tolerated, if not encouraged, in Rosen’s day. "We all rolled with it. If you’re gonna get into a fight every time someone made reference to your heritage, you’d be fighting all day instead of playing baseball. There were times it became important to stand up and say something, be heard, but you couldn’t take offense at every anti-Semitic remark that was made. Society has moved beyond petty, vicious, anti-black and anti-Semitism to a great degree. We’ve moved as a nation past a great deal of that."

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Society has moved beyond petty, vicious, anti-black and anti-Semitism to a great degree.

Al Rosen played baseball between the Jews’ two greatest baseball Messiahs, Hyman "Hank" Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Handsome, Bronx-born, 6’4 slugger Hammerin’ Hank arrived in 1930 and, as the first truly dominant Jew in baseball, lured two-and-a-half million immigrant Jewish families to the country’s signature sport. Greenberg made the sport kosher for future generations of Jewish sportswriters, broadcasters, agents, team owners, Rotisserie Baseball players, and real ones. His sheer physical size, to say nothing of his accomplishments, subverted the stereotype of Jewish frailty.

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Compared to Rosen’s era, Greenberg lived in a world of unbridled and unpoliced public anti-Semitism. Detroit, where he spent the first 12 of his 13 seasons, was a mecca of malignant Jew-haters, home to Father Charles Coughlin, with his 30 million radio listeners and an affinity for Adolf Hitler, as well as Henry Ford, whose Dearborn Independent newspaper blamed just about everything on the Jews. "If ‘fans’ wish to know the trouble with American baseball," the paper had editorialized in 1920 to its hundreds of thousands of readers, "they have it in three words – too much Jew."

Greenberg was simply, well, too much Jew for America’s anti-Semites. He didn’t bother to change his name, and the slurs mostly inspired him. In 1934, with Detroit angling for its first World Series championship and Rosh Hashanah approaching, Greenberg was in a bind—the most visible Jew in America, but also the only Tiger not in a batting slump. Fortunately, Detroit’s chief rabbi, speciously citing some passage in the Talmud, gave him the green light to play, Greenberg hit two home runs to beat the Yankees, 2-1, and the Detroit Free Press wished him Happy New Year in transliterated Hebrew on the front page. (Yom Kippur posed less of a problem for all; the Tigers had essentially sewn up the pennant and Greenberg sat out the game to attend services at Temple Shaarey Zedek, where he received a standing ovation from the congregants that must have rattled the rabbi on this holiest of holy days.)

It’s hard to imagine now, but Jew-baiting was its own little National Pastime, and protests against it were rare. With Greenberg at bat in the 1935 World Series against the Cubs, the anti-Semitic heckling from the Chicago dugout was so merciless that home plate umpire George Moriarty actually stopped the game, walked over, and told the Cubs to tone it down. Fittingly Moriarty’s grandson Michael would star in 1973’s Bang the Drum Slowly, a movie — and book — whose message is empathy and whose final line is "From now on, I rag no one."

Jew baiting was its own little national pastime.

When Greenberg returned from four years of military service during World War II, it was to a game and country that was beginning to think twice about flagrant anti-Semitism. (Instead, baseball and America were saving up their malice for Jackie Robinson, whom Greenberg famously befriended the first time they met at first base.) By the early ’50s, Rosen was in Cleveland and public anti- Semitism was waning. "Greenberg was a great pathfinder and some of it changed because of him," Rosen says now, although Jews of that era could still be personae non grata. When Dodger reserve outfielder Cal Abrams was given his own night at Ebbets Fields by his adoring Jewish fans in the early 1950s, manager Charlie Dressen didn’t even bother to start him.

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However, the way was now being paved for Koufax to put the finishing touches on America’s acceptance of the Jews in the 1960s. By the then, Jews had become more firmly entrenched in the American establishment. Who wouldn’t want to be a Jew in the same society as Paul Newman, Arthur Miller, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Sammy Davis, Jr.? It was in this environment, the most hospitable Jews had ever known, that Koufax could choose to observe the Day of Atonement over the opening game of the 1965 World Series. (When manager Walter Alston came to the mound to pull Drysdale, Koufax’s replacement, after the Twins shelled him for seven runs in two innings, Drysdale handed him the ball and said, "I bet you wish I was Jewish too." Everyone was in on the Jewish joke.)

"Suddenly," I proposed to Rosen over the phone, "it was great to be Jewish."

Rosen chuckled. "If you had Koufax’s talent, it was great to be."

Two decades after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Koufax was Central Casting’s antidote to the poisonous caricature of the Jew that had been widely in effect for almost two thousand years. With a single gesture, Koufax appeared to slay the Goliath of Jewish self-consciousness. Overnight he became the icon of both Jewish assimilation and distinction. Thanks to Koufax, Jews were now not only fully accredited citizens, but our national pastime itself was being forced take a backseat to its ancient customs!

(Today, according to two major surveys that form the basis of the book American Grace by David Putnam and Robert Campell, "Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America"! The only time you read about anti-Semitism among ballplayers is when it takes place outside the park, not in it, as when Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young was arrested earlier this year for casting anti-Semitic aspersions at a panhandler in a yarmulke who had approached a group of tourists outside a New York City hotel. For an infraction that would have gone unnoticed, let alone unreported, a few decades ago, Young was suspended without pay for seven days.)

Jews and baseball, an American love story

PLAYER avg hr rbi
Al Rosen .298 156 570
Gil Hodges .282 177 570
Duke Snider .315 163 556
Stan Musial .340 146 547
Ted Kluszewski .304 143 523
Ralph Kiner .278 183 503
Larry Doby .285 138 503
Gus Zernial .270 147 492
Roy Campanella .282 146 487
Hank Sauer .272 159 476

While Greenberg and Koufax got into the Hall of Fame, and got their own books and documentaries, Al Rosen passed into a kind of baseball player limbo. His high-visibility stints as an executive with the Yankees, the Houston Astros, and San Francisco Giants eclipsed his five straight years (1950-54) of Hall of Fame-quality stats, and his unanimous selection as American League Most Valuable Player in 1953, when he came within a hair of winning the Triple Crown, losing out to Mickey Vernon on a disputed first-base call on the last day of the season.

The last person to be unanimously selected had been Rosen’s hero, Hank Greenberg, who was the Indians’ general manager when Rosen went in to negotiate his salaries for the 1956 and ’57 seasons. Slowed by a broken finger sustained while playing first base at manager Al Lopez’s request and by a back injury from a car crash, Rosen’s numbers had suffered. Before the 1957 season, Greenberg asked his putative heir as baseball’s greatest Jewish slugger to take a second straight salary cut. Rosen was 32 and, once recovered from his injuries, might have had several more good years in him and a decent shot at the Hall of Fame, so Greenberg’s parsimony was objectionable. “My dad was a perfectionist,” Greenberg’s son, Steve, said by way of apology in the documentary Jews and Baseball. “My dad was much tougher on people he cared about than on strangers.” Let’s just say that no one could accuse Greenberg of tribal favoritism, and leave it at that. Rather than be traded away from the city where he had put down deep roots, Rosen retired to become a Cleveland stockbroker and the object of my distant affection.



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