On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.
Al Rosen played only seven full years in the big leagues before a finger injury forced his early retirement at age 32. But in his day, the Cleveland Indians star was an MVP — he came within a single of winning the Triple Crown in 1953 — and he was arguably the best third baseman in the American League. He was also very likely the best Jewish baseball player between Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and if he had played a few more years, his name might be as much of a household name as theirs.
But circumstance conspired against him.
As Joe Posnanski writes:
He didn't really get started in pro baseball until after he served in the Navy for World War II. Then from age 22 to 25 he utterly dominated in the minor leagues. He was probably ready to be a star, but the Indians already had Ken Keltner at third base.
Keltner is one of the best third basemen not in the Hall of Fame — Bill James even named a tool for determining whether someone was Hall-Worthy after him, the Keltner List. So Rosen wasn't blocked by a scrub. But when he finally got his opportunity, he made the most of it.
Best Year: 1953: .336/.422/.613, 43 HRs, 145 RBIs, 85 BB, 48 K, 9.7 rWAR
In 1953, Al Rosen didn't just have the best year of his career. He had one of the best seasons any third baseman has ever had. His 145 RBI are second-most of all time by someone at the position, behind only Alex Rodriguez in 2007, and his 43 homers are tied for 14th-most — tied with Matt Williams, the man he drafted. By Wins Above Replacement, his season is sixth, behind Mike Schmidt, Ron Santo, Adrian Beltre, Frank "Home Run Baker," and Alex Rodriguez.
Rosen was no one-year wonder. He made four straight All-Star teams from 1952-1955 and retired with a batting line of .285/.384./.495. Of the 11 Hall of Fame third basemen, his career .879 OPS is higher than all but Mike Schmidt and his contemporary Eddie Mathews, the two greatest of all time.
Worst Year: 1955: .244/.362/.402, 21 HRs, 81 RBIs, 92 BB, 44 K, 1.5 rWAR
After his MVP campaign, Rosen was shifted to first base for much of early 1954, as third base was manned by second-year player Al Smith and rookie Rudy Regalado. Sadly, Rosen broke his finger in May 1954. He decided to play in the All-Star Game that year despite the pain because he felt he owed it to the fans. He had a brilliant game, going 3-for-5 with two homers and five RBIs.
But his finger never fully healed after that, and his production tailed off, though he was still reasonably productive at the time he decided to call it quits. As you can see, the numbers above aren't "bad" by any means, though they were only average at the time. A proud man, he decided not to keep playing when he felt he wasn't at his best. As he told George Vass:
From then on and the next two years I couldn't hit up to what I felt was my standard. I was only 32 in 1956 but I decided to retire after that season, though people tried to talk me out of it. When Frank Lane became general manager of the Indians, he urged me to come back after I had sat out a year. He figured the rest should have helped, but I told him I was through playing.
Off the Field: Rosen had a long off-field career after hanging up his spikes at 32. After Rosen's retirement, he worked as a stockbroker and then baseball executive, working in front offices for the Yankees, Astros, and Giants. While with the Giants, he drafted arguably the best third basemen in that franchise's history, Matt Williams. He came back to the Yankees as a special assistant to General Manager Brian Cashman in 2001 and 2002, marking his seventh decade in baseball.
Rosen is also one of only 11 big league ballplayers born on Feb. 29 and arguably the best of the bunch.