But what if such circumstances had such a far-reaching, albeit unforeseen, effect as keeping a player out of the Hall of Fame?
In reading contemporary Sporting News accounts of the 1953 American League batting title race, I couldn't help but wonder if Al Rosen's unwillingness to take a gift base hit from the opposition might have been such a case.
In the weekend final series, Vernon's Washington Senators were hosting the Philadelphia A's, and the Indians were at home against the Detroit Tigers.
On Friday, the 25th, Vernon went 0-for-4, dropping his batting average to .333. Rosen, swinging for the fences with each at-bat, went 4-for-6, raising his average to .332. More importantly, he hit two home runs to pull ahead of Zernial 43 to 42, the numbers that would stand at the end of the season. Rosen's 43 homers also set an Indians team record.
On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 26, Rosen was 2-for-4 in a 12-3 Cleveland win. That brought him to a .333 tie with Vernon. That night, though, facing A's rookie pitcher Bob Trice and though the Senators were beaten 11-2, Vernon had a 3-for-4 day, bringing his average back to .336.
On the final day of the season, Sunday the 27th, the wires between the press boxes at Briggs and Municipal Stadiums burned up with each at-bat. The data was relayed to the Indians and Senators dugouts, and in Cleveland the public address announcer kept the entire park informed of developments.
In the first inning at Washington, Vernon grounded out. In his first two at-bats in Cleveland, Rosen singled and doubled to tie Vernon at .336. Vernon beat out a bunt in the third to pull ahead by a point (.337). Rosen hit into a force, then had a bunt single, remaining at .336. Vernon's line-drive single in the fifth maintained his edge. In the seventh, Vernon shot a rocket into the right fiend stands, but it was foul by a couple of feet. He then flew out to right, going to .337171.
In Cleveland, whether he knew it or not due to the time lag in getting reports from the Senators game, Rosen had a chance to take the batting title -- and with it, the Triple Crown -- with a hit in his final at-bat.
Whether because the Tigers, comfortably ahead in the game 7-3, liked Rosen or disliked Vernon, Detroit became "cousins" of the Hebrew Hammer when he came to the plate in the ninth inning. The infielders moved way back, conceding a bunt to Rosen. When Indians coach Tony Cuccinello pointed out the Tigers defensive setup, Rosen told him he wouldn't take the gift bunt hit being offered. He told the coach he didn't want to win the title like that, and that he was going up to the plate to hit, and would be trying for a home run.
Cleveland baseball writer Hal Lebovitz reported that Tigers pitcher Al Aber appeared more nervous than Rosen. He started off by throwing three "very bad pitches" for balls. Refusing to take the walk, Rosen fouled off the next four "equally bad" pitches, including one that Lebovitz contended hit Rosen. He then hit a high, slow bounder to Jerry Priddy at third, who threw to Tigers manager Fred Hutchinson playing first.
Rosen finished the season with a batting average of .3355592. If he had taken the gift bunt, he would have had .3372287, nosing out Vernon by 1/500th of a percent: 0.0000577.
Thus, the Senators engaged in what Washington beat writer Herb Heft called a "quiet conspiracy" to sew up the title for Vernon. They knew that if anybody got on base in the eighth or ninth inning, and was stranded, Vernon would have to come to the plate. Thus, "rather zany shenanigans" ensued.
Mickey Grasso doubled in the eighth inning, but when he "wandered off" the bag, he was picked off by pitcher Joe Coleman. In the ninth, Keith Thomas led off with a pinch-hit single to left, but with what Heft called "super-obvious lack of judgment," tried for two bases and was easily thrown out. Ed Yost, the Walking Man, popped up on a pitch that was a foot over his head for the second out. Pete Runnels "half-swung" into the final out and Vernon was left in the on-deck circle with his second American League batting title. (In 1946, Vernon had won with a .353 mark, the only time previous to 1953 that he had hit over .300.)
Asked to comment on his team's unusual performance in the final innings, Senators manager Bucky Harris said, "I didn't have anything to do with any conspiracy. If the players ran the bases poorly or swung at bad pitches, it was their own doing . . . they won't be fined." Regardless of Harris' position on the issue, an unsigned Sporting News editorial, probably by publisher J. G. Taylor Spink, appeared shortly after the close of the season, coming down firmly against such tactics.
In delving further into Al Rosen's career, I now realize that a Triple Crown in 1953 probably would not have meant the difference between getting into the Hall of Fame or not. In fact, I can't find that Rosen's name was ever on the ballot.
|Rosen and Vernon were teammates on the 1949-50 Cleveland Indians. They're shown here on their 1950 Num Num Potato Chips cards.|