BALTIMORE (JTA) — When Ryan Braun was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011, Jewish sports nuts talked about whether the Milwaukee Brewers’ slugger would end up in the pantheon with Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
Following Major League Baseball’s recent suspension of Braun for using performance-enhancing drugs, the answer seems to be a clear no.
Forgotten in the discussion of Jewish diamond greats is Al Rosen, a power-hitting third baseman who was a member of the tribe in more ways than one, playing his entire career for the Cleveland Indians.
But now comes a new documentary, “Beating the Odds: The Al Rosen Story,” celebrating Rosen’s contributions to baseball as a player and executive, as well as being a role model for American Jews.
Rosen’s MVP season of 1953 followed on the heels of Greenberg’s two MVPs (1935 and 1940) and preceded Koufax’s one MVP (1963) and three Cy Young Awards (1963, 1965 and 1966).
Like the Detroit Tigers’ Greenberg — his idol — Rosen was nicknamed the Hebrew Hammer. Like the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers’ Koufax, he enjoyed a brilliant career abbreviated by injury.
Rosen was a four-time All-Star who played in the 1948 World Series — the last one won by the Indians — and two seasons later led the American League in home runs with a rookie record 37 (he qualified as a rookie despite appearing in games the previous three seasons with Cleveland). His MVP was the last for an Indian.
He would help lead Cleveland back to the Series in 1954, but the Tribe was swept by the Willie Mays-led New York Giants.
Two years later, at age 32 and after just seven full seasons, Rosen played his last game, done in by a finger injury and back problems. Another factor: He learned Greenberg, by then the Indians’ general manager, was planning to cut his salary or trade him.
“I feel like my career was aborted,” Rosen, 89, told JTA in a recent interview. “It’s been troubling me over the years. I don’t dwell on it because it’s not worth dwelling on.”
The new documentary serves as a reminder that while Rosen might fall short of the Greenberg-Koufax bar, he should never be forgotten in discussions about the greatest Jewish baseball players.
The film was financed in large part by the Indians, who are selling it at Progressive Field souvenir stands and on the team’s website.
It chronicles the asthmatic Rosen’s rise from his native Spartanburg, S.C., to Miami, where his family moved to improve his health, through his youth exploits as a boxer and on to an accomplished baseball career. Rosen hit for a .285 average, slugged 192 home runs and batted in 100 or more runs five consecutive seasons.
Rosen is “one of the great names” in Indians’ history, said Bob DiBiasio, the team’s senior vice president for public affairs.
“We really felt it was important to participate in this project because you do need to document the rich history of the game and our franchise,” DiBiasio said.
The documentary was completed earlier this month, 60 years since Rosen was named MVP. Due to Major League Baseball’s licensing fees for footage, filmmaker Bill Levy opted to tell the story through interviews, narration and still photographs rather than utilize clips of Rosen hitting and fielding.
“He was a hell of a baseball player,” said Levy, who produces corporate films but as a journalist covered the team during Rosen’s career. “In his era, Al Rosen was a hero, Jewish or not Jewish. He was a hero to me. He carried himself in a dignified way.
“With this Ryan Braun thing, [Rosen’s] position as one of the three top Jewish baseball players of all time is still unchallenged.”
The 57-minute film’s other subtitle, “Making Elmer Yoter Eat His Words,” is a slam at the minor league manager who brought the 17-year-old Rosen to tears after a workout by saying he’d never amount to anything as a ballplayer.
“You’re wrong, Mr. Yoter, and some day I am going to make you eat your words,” Rosen is quoted as responding.
That was hardly the only opposition faced by Rosen. A football coach at his Miami Senior High School implied that Jewish athletes were soft — that they preferred tennis to contact sports.
“That’s etched in my memory,” Rosen says in the film. “You could never get it out of there because I always wanted to prove this guy wrong.”
The film also recalls Rosen approaching the Chicago White Sox dugout to challenge the player who screamed anti-Semitic slurs during a game at Comiskey Park. Rosen never found out the player’s identity, and told JTA that he admired Saul Rogovin, a pitcher and also a Jew, for not ratting on his White Sox teammate.
“I could imagine he was in a very difficult spot, and he handled it absolutely correct,” said Rosen, who ran into Rogovin years after the incident and asked about the heckler’s identity.
Rosen’s integrity also comes through in the documentary.
In 1953, Rosen nearly achieved the rare Triple Crown — finishing the season leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average. Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers won the trifecta last year, only the 13th player in baseball history to accomplish the feat.
Heading into the final game, Rosen was first in homers and RBIs, and was neck and neck with Mickey Vernon of the Washington Senators for the batting title. Vernon had picked up two hits in four at bats against the Philadelphia Athletics; Rosen was 3 for 4 against the Tigers. If Rosen could hit safely in his last at-bat, he could secure the batting title and the Triple Crown.
Rosen topped a slow grounder to third base but was nipped at first trying to leg out the infield hit. He finished at .336, one point short of Vernon. Rosen led the league in homers (43) and RBIs (145), along with runs (115), total bases (367) and slugging percentage (.613).
“I knew I was out,” Rosen tells Levy of the deciding play. “I couldn’t have accepted being called safe on that play. … I just wouldn’t have been able to live with that. I was glad he called it right, and I accepted it. That’s just the way it was.”
So dominant was Rosen in ’53 that he won the MVP unanimously — a first. He wrote thank-you letters to each writer who cast a vote.
The next year, the Indians recorded one of the best regular seasons in baseball history with 111 victories before losing to the Giants in the Series. Rosen was on base when Mays made his legendary catch of Vic Wertz’s drive to deep centerfield in Game 1; Rosen said he fully expected Mays to make the play.
Perhaps the documentary’s greatest revelation is Rosen’s role in helping George Steinbrenner purchase the New York Yankees in 1973. The two had been part of a failed effort to acquire the Indians.
Rosen later worked for Steinbrenner as the Yankees’ president and chief executive officer, and was there for the team’s 1978 World Series title. Rosen went on to run the Houston Astros and the San Francisco Giants, leading the latter to the 1989 World Series (a loss). He is still the only person to have won an MVP and been named Executive of the Year (in 1987, with the Giants).
Rosen retired from the front office in 1992. Were he heading the Milwaukee Brewers now, Rosen told JTA he’s not sure how he would have handled Braun, the son of an Israeli Jewish father and Catholic mother. The film came out before the suspensions of Braun and other players were announced. Rosen recalled that one of his Giants players had a cocaine problem.
The suspensions are “a terrible blow for baseball,” Rosen said. “I feel badly that it happened, I feel badly for baseball and I feel badly for the players. There will always be a tarnish on all [their] accomplishments.”
He added, “It’s not only Ryan Braun but many other fellas. But I know one thing: If I were a player today, I wouldn’t take anything without a doctor saying so and without a written note from the doctor.”
Rosen, the only living member of the starting lineup of the ’54 Indians, occasionally sees some of his contemporaries living nearby, including Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner, an Indians teammate. He follows baseball with great interest, and said he’s particularly impressed by the performance of the Tampa Bay Rays and their manager, Joe Maddon.
And he’s technologically hip. Rosen follows international affairs closely — he includes three or four Jewish newspapers in his daily online reading — and stays in contact with his widespread family by Skype. All the Rosen households — he and his wife Rita have five children, four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter — have received a DVD of the film.
“That’s one of the things that makes me happy,” Rosen said of the documentary. “It’ll be something the kids will have.”