Former AL MVP and longtime big league GM Al Rosen passed away Friday at age 91. Rosen offered one of my favorite interviews for The Baseball Codes, presenting a breakfast invitation to visit him at his country club in Rancho Mirage, just outside Palm Springs, where we dined on oatmeal and orange juice while he spun stories of Cleveland and Houston and New York. Everybody there called him “Mr. Rosen.” He smiled at all of them.
His MVP season in 1953 was noteworthy for his missing out on a triple crown, as The New York Times put it on Saturday, “by a step.” The batting race was so close that what may have been a blown call during Rosen’s final at-bat of the season gave the crown to Washington’s Mickey Vernon. There was more to the story, however, than one simple call. From The Baseball Codes:
Heading into the ﬁnal day of the season, Rosen already held a slight edge in the home-run race and had the RBI title locked up. His most precarious category was batting average, in which he was tied for the league lead with Senators ﬁrst baseman Mickey Vernon.
In Cleveland’s game against Detroit, the Tigers took a page from the Jack O’Connor playbook and positioned their inﬁeld very deep—an invitation for the well-liked Rosen to bunt.
Jack O’Connor was the manager of the St. Louis Browns, who, in 1910, gifted the AL batting title to Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie. Not wanting Ty Cobb to win it, he ordered his infielders to play remarkably deep on the season’s final day, allowing Lajoie to accumulate seven bunt singles over the course of a doubleheader and nearly close a sizable gap with Cobb. The crown was awarded to Lajoie decades later when a scorekeeping error was found to have credited Cobb with two extra hits on the season.
Rosen, however, harboring an abiding sense of fair play, chose instead to swing away and went 3-for-5 with two doubles.
In the Senators’ game against the Philadelphia Athletics, Vernon collected two hits in his ﬁrst four at-bats. Shortly thereafter, Rosen’s game in Cleveland ended, giving Vernon a razor-thin lead heading into his ﬁnal plate appearance. Having been notiﬁed of Rosen’s line, every player on the Washington bench understood the situation: A hit would cement the crown for Vernon, and an out would hand it to Rosen. The Senators decided to go with option three: Don’t give Vernon the chance.
The slugger was scheduled to bat fourth in the ninth inning, and when Washington catcher Mickey Grasso doubled with one out, it seemed like a certainty that Vernon would again reach the plate. Grasso, however, managed to get picked off at second, a development observers attributed to the fact that he more or less wandered away from the base. Kite Thomas followed with a single, but when he tried to stretch it to a double without beneﬁt of running hard, he was easily thrown out for the third out of the inning.
Whatever instincts Vernon may have had toward justice became irrelevant; he never made it to the plate and Rosen missed his triple crown by .0011 points.
Playing the game the right way was as great a legacy as Rosen could have hoped for. He will be missed.