Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rosen refused 'gift' of 1953 Triple Crown

Uncommon commons. Contemporary accounts of tidbits that as a collector of baseball and football cards I found interesting because they helped bring to life the faces on the cards I collected. I figure that if I found these items of interest, so would other vintage card collectors.

Baseball's history, if not its official record, is rife with instances in which a member or members of an opposing team "laid down" for the benefit of an opposing player. We're not talking here about some nefarious gambling scheme, but rather just a collegial favor done between the white lines in a game in which the score was so lopsided that the outcome was inevitable, or perhaps a game that was meaningless to the league standings.

These courtesies were often for the statistical benefit of a former teammate or a "good guy"  wearing the opposition's uniform. Occasionally, a team might consciously give an edge to a player who is on the verge of defeating a hated rival in some major statistical category. Or a battery might tip off a rookie that a gopher ball was going to be served to allow him to get a hit or home run in his first major league at-bat.

These favors could include such things as losing a fly ball in the sun, overthrowing second on an attempted steal or swinging feebly at obvious bad pitches.  Usually everybody in the park, from the fans in the bleachers to the managers in the dugouts, recognized what was happening in these instances and there were no adverse consequences.

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.

Going into the final series of the 1953 season, Cleveland Indians third baseman Rosen was in serious contention for the Triple Crown (it would have been first in the majors since Ted Williams in 1947). He had locked up the American League RBI title; at season's end he had 145 RBIs to runner-up Mickey Vernon's 115. With 41, Rosen was just one home run behind Gus Zernial. And, with just three games to go, Rosen trailed Vernon .329 to .336 for the batting title.

In an effort to perhaps get Rosen a few more at-bats to overtake Zernial, he was put into the lead-off hitter's spot. At that point in the season the Indians had sewn up second place behind the Yankees. When the Tribe defeated the third-place Chicago White Sox on Sept. 22 and 23, there was no longer any chance that the Sox could overtake them for second-place money.

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.

Whether it was because Priddy eased up on the throw, or Rosen was not a particularly fast runner, the play at first was bang-bang. Umpire Hank Soar called Rosen out; the runner had missed the bag, as he saw it. The 9,579 fans let out a collective groan and then began booing. After the game, Rosen defended Soar's call. He said, "Soar knew I was out. Hutchinson knew I was out. I knew I was out. I wouldn't want to win the title from Mickey on that play. I would know in my heart always that I really didn't make it."

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.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Vernon's teammates, because they were unsure that the press box had their stats correct, determined not to let him come to bat again and risk losing the batting championship. In reality, though, an extra unproductive at-bat would have still left Vernon with a one point lead.

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.

After turning pro at age 18 in 1942, Rosen lost three seasons in the Navy during World War II. He didn't make his major league debut until 1947. Playing just 10 seasons in the majors just didn't allow him the raw numbers. In fact, until he beat out Ken Keltner for the starting third baseman's job in 1950, Rosen played just seven, five and 23 games in 1947-49, respectively. He retired after the 1956 season when an auto accident exacerbated back and leg injuries. He did, though, win the MVP in '53 (the first time that it had ever been won on unanimous first-pace votes), was a four-time All-Star and had a 1948 World Series ring. He also led the league twice in home runs and RBIs.

After retirement, Rosen became a Cleveland stock broker until returning to baseball as president and/or general manager of the Yankees (1978-79), Astros (1980-85) and Giants (1985-92).

You don't hear about players from an opposing team doing any favors during a game in this day and age. to me, that's just one more thing that has taken some of the human interest out of the modern game.
Rosen and Vernon were teammates on the 1949-50 Cleveland Indians. They're shown here on their 1950 Num Num Potato Chips cards.

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