Al Rosen, RIP: Heart over vision

Rosen (far left) with Martin and Steinbrenner, before the Billy & George Show sent Rosen scurrying.

Rosen (far left) with Martin and Steinbrenner, looking none too thrilled, before the Billy & George Show finally sent Rosen scurrying.

When Gabe Paul bolted as the Yankees’ president, exhausted by George Steinbrenner’s machinations, Steinbrenner had just the man to succeed him: Al Rosen, the one-time Cleveland third base star and a minority partner in the Yankee ownership.

There were those who thought the personable Rosen—who died 14 March at 91—was just the right guy to neutralise the tensions between two time bombs named Steinbrenner and then-Yankee manager Billy Martin. Including Martin himself. “Al played the game,” Martin told reporters. “He understands what it’s like. Gabe got in the way. He didn’t know the game.”

Martin, of course, couldn’t get out of his own way in 1978 (or for years to come before his death), leading to his mid-season firing and Rosen’s hiring of his old Indians teammate Bob Lemon to take over. (And, win the 1978 World Series while he was at it.) When Steinbrenner brought Martin back in 1979, after rehiring Martin behind Rosen’s back, Rosen knew it was a place he didn’t want to be. (“I couldn’t warm up to him,” he once said of Martin, “if I were embalmed with him.”) Before he left the Yankees, though, Rosen swung the deal that made a Yankee out of a Rangers pitching prospect named Dave Righetti.

The Astros hired Rosen to run them, and he helped build their 1986 National League West winner before leaving to run the Giants. His two key Astro moves: swinging the deal to bring a kid named Mike Scott over from the Mets, and drafting a power-hitting first baseman named Glenn Davis.

Rosen with Roger Craig.

Rosen with Roger Craig.

As the Giants’ president, Rosen made Martin’s words haunting words, even if Martin would be dead by the time it happened. Rosen understood the players’ lot perhaps too well. (Trivia: he remains the only man in baseball history to win an MVP as a player and Executive of the Year honours.) He helped build two division champions and the 1989 National League pennant winner in San Francisco, hiring Roger Craig to manage, signing Brett Butler as a free agent, dealing for such players as Kevin Mitchell and Steve Bedrosian, and shepherding such talent as Will Clark and Matt Williams.

But if Rosen proved shrewd in building winning teams, he proved generous but short-sighted in negotiating contracts. In the winter 1990, he negotiated a deal that changed the face of salary arbitraiton and the free agency market to the point where lesser players might find themselves in the same penthouse as the genuine superstars, and the sport itself would suffer a kind of hyperinflation leading to further crises later in the decade.

The catalyst was pitcher Bud Black. Now the Padres’ manager, Black in November 1990 was 33 years old,a free agent from the American League, and the owner of a .500 lifetime record with an ERA knocking on the door of four. You wouldn’t have thought that kind of pitcher would be worth $2.1 million a season, but that’s exactly what Rosen signed Black to earn for four years beginning in 1991. “The 1990-91 signing season,” John Helyar would write in The Lords of the Realm, “was to become known as ‘the Bud Black market’.”

Helyar himself noted it could also have been called the Darren Daulton market, considering the Phillies handed Daulton—already often injured, a .227 lifetime hitter to that point—three years and $6.75 million, which shot a hole in the ceiling for such men as Willie McGee, Kevin Mitchell, and Terry Pendleton. So why single out Rosen and Black?

Bud Black, who'd be just over .500 and just under 4.00 as a superstar-paid Giant.

Bud Black, who’d be just over .500 and just under 4.00 as a superstar-paid Giant.

It was incredible. A year earlier, Orel Hershiser and Frank Viola were baseball’s top-paid pitchers. Suddenly Bud Black was their salary equal. Other pitchers moved quickly to cash in, using the baseline he set. On one November day, Tom Browning, Mike Boddicker, and Danny Jackson signed contracts that guaranteed them a combined $32 million. Dennis Martinez and Jose Rijo signed multi-year $3 million-plus deals soon thereafter . . .

Bud Black was the preferred symbol . . . because his contract was the handiwork of Al Rosen. The Giants’ president was considered the Typhoid Mary of GMs. His loopy contracts could—and often did—infect a whole winter’s signings. Since Rosen refused to go to salary arbitration, feeling it only caused hard feelings, the lofty contracts he negotiared instead hurt every other owner’s arbitration cases . . .

One theory was that, as a former player, he simply liked players too much . . . But that alone didn’t explain it, since lots of former players were mean as snakes as GMs (see Paul Richards, Ralph Houk, Eddie Lopat, et. al.) The alternative theory was that he’d been trained in the negotiating art by George Steinbrenner . . .

Rosen didn’t begin with Bud Black that winter. He’d sent a kind of warning shot the previous winter, when he signed Robby Thompson—a serviceable second baseman but nothing close to a star, never mind a Hall of Famer in the making—to four years at $5.9 million.

And he didn’t stop with Black in winter 1990, either. Clark was a bona fide star already in 1990, but since when did a mere three-year man merit $15 million for four years,baseball people wondered? Especially when, as Helyar reminded his readers, all it did was defer Clark’s first walk year by one year?

Williams had another answer. Rosen signed him to $2.6 million for two years beginning in 1991 despite Williams coming off his first full major league season and not even being arbitration-eligible. The 1991 salary was $600,000, but you can bet those third basemen who were eligible played right off that number. Yet Rosen also told a press conference at the 1990 winter meetings, “For a hundred years we couldn’t find a way to destroy this game, but now I think we’ve found the key. It’s disastrous.” That, Helyar observed, “was hypocritical blather, of course, and dismissed as such.”

It was nothing, of course, compared to Lou Gorman, then the Red Sox general manager. In the winter of the Bud Black Market, Gorman did his part by signing three dubious players to star dollars: sub-.500 pitcher Matt Young, fading and injury-addled bombardier Jack Clark, and aging starter-reliever Danny Darwin. Their deals totaled $27 million, and left the Red Sox’s arguable franchise player, Roger Clemens, the fourth highest paid player on his own club. (Clemens would end up signing for four years and $21.5 million at the end of 1991.)

Swinging with the Indians, before injuries wore him down and Hank Greenberg wore him out.

Swinging with the Indians, before injuries wore him down and Hank Greenberg wore him out.

Perhaps Rosen couldn’t shake the memory of what happened to him in Cleveland, when his boyhood idol Hank Greenberg turned up as the Indians’ general manager and manhandled him two years running in contract negotiations. The 1953 American League MVP who lost the Triple Crown by a batting average fraction (he missed touching first while beating out an infield hit, leaving Mickey Vernon to win the batting title), while posting perhaps the best season ever by a third baseman (Mike Schmidt’s and George Brett’s 1980 get the closest), Rosen chafed when Greenberg tried to cut his pay a second straight season, even as injuries (a finger fracture in 1954, whiplash and back trouble from an auto accident that offseason) began wearing him down.

Rosen was a highly intelligent man who’d spent his childhood persevering in the face of asthma, his father abandoning his family and anti-Semitism growing up near Miami’s Little Havana. (Like Sandy Koufax, Rosen refused to play baseball on High Holy Days.) He saw World War II action as a Naval lieutenant (he navigated an assault boat during the Okinawa landings); he became a full-time stock broker after his playing days.

The injuries probably prevented Rosen from making a Hall of Fame playing career. When his first wife died in a fall from a Philaelphia hotel window in 1971 (he remarried happily a few years later), Rosen decided to return to baseball, joining Steinbrenner to try buying first the Indians and, failing that, the Yankees. If Rosen had his flaws as a baseball executive, handling and shepherding young players wasn’t one of them. He might have been vision-compromised as a contract negotiator, but as a mentor he was invaluable.

“(He) rushed me to the big leagues a little bit—72 games of A ball and I found myself in the big leagues,” Matt Williams, now the Nationals’ manager, told the Washington Post upon Rosen’s death. “But he showed me confidence that I could play there and taught me along the way. Great friend, great mentor. I owe a lot to him because he gave me a shot, then he gave me a shot again, and again after that. Spent a wonderful life playing golf when he retired in Palm Springs. But sadly missed.”

An inveterate autograph signer to the end (he signed anything sent to him and often repaid the postage, according to one report), Rosen in retirement in southern California once lunched with former Los Angeles Times writer Pete Donovan. Donovan swears Rosen’s goodbye for the afternoon—before a round of cards with friends—was, “I got to make a living.”

2 thoughts on “Al Rosen, RIP: Heart over vision

  1. Thanks for the insight…. Rosen was one of my boyhood idols. Being Jewish, it didn’t hurt rooting for someone who you had something in common with. However, even as a kid, I knew you didn’t have to be Polish to cheer for Musial,or Italian cheer on Di Maggio or black to root for Jackie Robinson. But I like “Flip” fighting attitude. In that Triple almost crown,was overlooked on the final day was the fact that Mickey Vernon was on deck when some player decided to steal a base and was out… the only time that year he tried to steal, and Vernon did not have to take another at bat that season to win the B.A. Championship. I met Rosen when he was with the Giants,and told him about a letter I wrote to Hank Greenberg,then GM for the Indians. George Kell was voted starting 3rd baseman for the All-star game,however he could not play due to injury. Casey Stengle the Mgr. for the American League chose his own Gil McDougald who came in 3rd in fan voting over Rosen who was 2nd. Hank wrote me a letter saying Rosen was young and he would get more opportunities to play in future All-Star Games. And Hank was right, a few years later Rosen hit 2 H.R.s and a single to drive in 5 RBIs. What I did not know,was the year that Greenberg had 100 RBIs at the A-S break, he was left off the roster too. A couple of guys named Foxx and Gehrig did!

    • Sometimes I think there should be a third certain thing with death and taxes—All-Star snubs.

      Story about Rosen and that 1953 batting title: when he missed first base beating out that grounder to third, manager Al Lopez offered to argue the call but Rosen told him, “Al, I was out. I missed the base.” Tells you something right there.

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