In the end, we are all prisoners of circumstance ... and it was circumstance that kept Al Rosen from being in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rosen, who died a couple of days ago, was a truly great player. Circumstances kept many from knowing it.
Rosen's father left the family when Al was a baby. He was born with a terrible case of asthma -- for this reason his mother moved the family to Miami from Spartanburg, South Carolina when he was still a toddler. He was Jewish in a part of Miami where there were no other Jews, and he spent much of his childhood fighting bullies. He boxed for a time. Rosen loved baseball more, though; he once had a high school coach tell him that baseball was not a game for Jews. He signed with the Cleveland Indians when he was 18. A manager there told him he probably should find a real job. He joined the Navy and went to war.
So, no, it never was easy. When Rosen got out of the Navy -- he fought in the South Pacific, was involved in the assault at Okinawa -- and he was 22 when he returned to baseball. His first year, in Pittsfield, he hit .323 with power. The next year, in Oklahoma City, he hit .349 with power. The next year, in Kansas City, e hit .327 with power.
In other words, Al Rosen was already good enough to be a star in the Major Leagues. Trouble was, Cleveland already had a third baseman they loved -- Ken Keltner. He was a seven-time All-Star, viewed as a defensive wizard (in part because of the role he played in ending Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak) and good enough to inspire Bill James to come up with the Keltner list of questions to determine Hall of Fame worth (even if Keltner ends up falling short on his own list).
Keltner had probably his best season in 1948, and so Rosen did not become a full-time Major Leaguer until 1950 when he was 26. In Rosen's first year, he set a rookie record with 37 home runs. That also led the league -- Rosen would lead the American League in homers two of his first four full seasons. There is little doubt that Rosen could have been a high level Major Leaguer for several more years had circumstances been different.
He endured a lot of abuse for being Jewish, both from opponents and people in the crowd. He embraced his role as a Jewish player-- "The Hebrew Hammer" -- and once said he wished his name was MORE Jewis so he could inspire more Jewish kids. I once got the chance to ask him how that abuse affected his career. He was quite circumspect about it. On the one hand, he said, it inspired him to become a better player. On the other hand, though, he wondered how he might have played if he didn't feel the weight of the world on his shoulders ever single day. He did not deny the possibility that fighting as hard as he did shortened his career.
In 1953, he finished one batting point short of the triple crown. It might be the greatest year ever for a third baseman. Here are five nominees:
-- Al Rosen, 1953: .336/.422/.613, 43 homers, 145 RBIs, 115 runs. -- George Brett, 1980: .390/.454/.664, 24 homers, 118 RBIs. -- Mike Schmidt, 1980: .286/.380/..624, 48 homers, 121 RBIs, 104 runs, Gold Glove. -- Adrian Beltre, 2004. .334/.388.629, 48 homers, 121 RBIs. -- Alex Rodriguez, 2007. .314/.422/645, 54 homers, 156 RBIs, 143 runs.
For five seasons, between ages 26-30, Rosen hit .298/.396/.528. The decline phase then began, he was just a useful player at 31 and 32. And then he retired, in part because of debilitating injuries, in part because his one-time hero Hank Greenberg -- then the Indians GM -- slashed his salary.
Circumstances. The Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the survivors, the bulletproof, the fortunate ones who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Al Rosen is not in the Hall of Fame. He never got to be a young player. He never got to be an old player. The war, the team, the role of being a pioneer, the body shortened everything. But for five years, Al Rosen was about as good as anybody who ever played third base in the Major Leagues.