Al Rosen, a slugging third baseman for the Cleveland Indians who was unanimously named the American League’s most valuable player in 1953, when he came within a hit of winning the batting triple crown, but whose career was cut short by injury, died on Friday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 91.
His death was announced by his family.
Rosen was also the president of theYankees in the late 1970s and the president and general manager of the Houston Astros and the San Francisco Giants, helping to build the Giants’ 1989 pennant winner.
In the early and mid-1950s, Rosen, a muscular right-handed batter, joined with the lefty-swinging Luke Easter and Larry Doby to provide the punch in Cleveland’s lineup. Rosen led the league in home runs twice and runs batted in twice and played in the All-Star Game every year from 1952 to 1955. He was best remembered for his 1953 season, when he led the league in home runs with 43 and runs batted in with 145 while batting .336.
Going into the final game of the 1953 season, Rosen was battling Mickey Vernon, the Washington Senators’ first baseman, for the batting title. In Rosen’s last at-bat, against the Detroit Tigers at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, he hit a slow ground ball to third base and seemed to have beaten the throw on a close play.
“Everybody on the bench thought I was safe,” Rosen told Baseball Digest in 2002. But the umpire, Hank Soar, called Rosen out, and he agreed.
“I tried to leap to first base,” Rosen recalled. “But I did a quick step and missed the bag.”
Had Rosen been safe, he would have won the battling title and the triple crown. But Vernon edged him for the batting title, finishing with a .337 average.
Despite being hampered by a broken finger, Rosen hit .300 in 1954, helping the Indians win the pennant with 111 victories, then a league record, to end the Yankees’ streak of five consecutive World Series appearances. The Indians were then swept in four games by the New York Giants in the World Series.
Ralph Kiner, the future Hall of Fame slugger who joined the Indians in 1955, came to admire Rosen. “He was the leader of the team and the best all-around player I ever played with,” Kiner was quoted by Danny Peary in the oral history “We Played the Game” (1994).
Albert Leonard Rosen was born on Feb. 29, 1924, in Spartanburg, S.C., where his grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, ran a department store. When he was a youngster, his family moved to Miami, where, he recalled, he was sometimes taunted over his religion. So he took up boxing and showed the grit he would later display on the baseball field.
“I wasn’t starting trouble in those days, but when it came to me, I wanted to end it, and damn quick,” he told Roger Kahn in “How the Weather Was” (1973).
Rosen also played fast-pitch softball and turned to baseball in prep school. He later joined the Indians’ organization and made his major league debut in 1947. He briefly played for the Indians in 1948, when they won the World Series, but did not become a regular until 1950, when he hit a league-leading 37 home runs.
The lingering effects of his 1954 finger injury, which he sustained fielding a grounder while playing first base, and an injury from an auto accident brought on Rosen’s retirement, at age 32, after the 1956 season. He had a career batting average of .285 with 192 homers and 717 R.B.I.
After working as a stockbroker and casino executive, Rosen embarked on a second baseball career in 1978 when the Yankee owner George Steinbrenner named him the team’s president. Steinbrenner had known Rosen from his years as a shipping executive in Cleveland, and Rosen was already a minority owner of the Yankees.
“George tapped me on the shoulder and said he wanted me to run the Yankees,” Rosen once told The Akron Beacon Journal. “It’s like having a tiara put on your head.”
During the 1978 season, Billy Martin departed as manager and was replaced by Bob Lemon, a former star pitcher who had been Rosen’s teammate with the Indians. The Yankees defeated the Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff on Bucky Dent’s memorable home run and went on to win the pennant and the World Series.
Rosen’s tiara did not stay on long, a familiar pattern in the tumultuous years when Steinbrenner’s Yankees became known as the Bronx Zoo. Rosen quit in the summer of 1979 amid conflicts with Steinbrenner and Martin, who had returned as manager.
Rosen was the president and general manager of the Astros from 1980 to September 1985, then ran the Giants’ baseball operation through 1992. He hired the former pitcher Roger Craig as manager, and they brought the Giants a division title in 1987 and a National League pennant two years later, though the Giants were swept by the Oakland A’s in the 1989 World Series, which was famously interrupted by an earthquake.
Rosen is survived by his wife, Rita; three sons, Rob, Andy and Jim, from his marriage to his first wife, Terry, who died in 1971; two stepchildren, Gail Evenari and David Loewenstein; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Rosen was known for his determination and intensity. He fielded hundreds of ground balls in drills to improve his fielding. Yankees Manager Casey Stengel told Time magazine in 1954: “He’ll give you the works every time. Gets all the hits, gives you the hard tag in the field.”
Rosen once told USA Today: “I worked hard at it. I wasn’t as talented as many. I didn’t have a long career, but I thought I had a good career.”