I was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but my family moved to the Miami area when I was three years old. I grew up in the southwest section of Miami, which is now in the heart of Little Havana. There weren’t that many people living there at that time. I remember we grew up in the streets, and we were constantly playing softball or any kind of game with a bat. We sometimes used a beanbag instead of a ball.
In those days you didn’t get much baseball information except through the newspapers. There were two papers — the Miami Herald and the Miami Daily News. Box scores were a very real part of my growing up. Looking at the box scores in the paper, the line scores, all of that was always very fascinating to me. The baseball news and box scores were dominated by the Yankees. My earliest memory was that everybody became a Yankee fan because of all of the terrific teams they had and players like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and all the other greats.
I had two favorite players: Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg. I probably liked Greenberg because I was Jewish and he was Jewish. Why else would I have picked Hank Greenberg and not Babe Ruth? But Gehrig? He was and is my all-time favorite.
I grew up without a father and was raised by three women: my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt. My grandmother stayed home with my brother and I, and my mother and aunt worked all the time, as did my brother and I.
On my twelfth birthday, I can remember that I was given two choices for a present by my grandmother — a baseball glove or a guitar. I picked the baseball glove. It was my first glove, and it cost $15.
I was an asthmatic as a child. In those days, they didn’t have the things they do today to treat asthmatics. The doctor said that the best thing for me was to be outside in the fresh air as much as possible. So my mother and my grandmother and aunt were always pushing me to compete. They didn’t have to push very hard, because I was always a much better athlete than I was a student.
Growing up, I was fortunate that I could compete with anybody in whatever sport I played. I played just about every sport. My first exposure to any kind of a baseball league was the American Legion. There was a junior program for kids ten to twelve years old. At thirteen, you’d move on to the American Legion program. Primarily, I played softball until I got to play in the junior American Legion. It was all the times I pitched in softball games on Miami’s sandlots that I earned the nickname “Flip.” That was because I did a lot of quick wrist snapping.
I went to Miami Senior High. One day early in my freshman year after football practice, a bunch of us kids, all friends, jumped into the car of the assistant coach. The plan was for one after another of us to peel off as the car got to near where a kid lived. I was sitting on the knees of a friend in the back. There were six of us in the back and three in the front.
The coach turned around and looked at me. “Rosen, what are you doing going out for football?”
It was sort of a startling question. But I had a ready answer: “Because I love it.”
“I didn’t think you Jew boys liked contact,” he snapped back.
I could not believe what I had heard. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now. Some of my friends took such great exception. They were really furious about the whole thing, because in south Florida at that time, other than Miami Beach, where there were signs that said “No Jews or Dogs Allowed,” the southwest section of Miami was just working class people. In fact, there were no Jewish kids in our neighborhood, which was made up primarily of people of Greek descent, Irish descent.
I won’t get into what I felt like doing to that assistant coach. However, I let the whole thing pass. But for the first time, I truly became aware of how some people felt about Jews.
Despite what he said, I played football all through high school. I played football, basketball, baseball, and I boxed. In my junior and senior years, I went to Florida Military Academy in St. Petersburg on a scholarship. There I began to box even more. All the boxing I did probably added to my image as a tough guy. I don’t know how tough I was. I do know as an amateur boxer, I had my nose broken eleven times.
But the sport I really loved and did well in was baseball. I had an overwhelming desire to continue on in life in a baseball career. In my senior year at Florida Military Academy, I occasionally dated this girl. Her father was a golf professional from Ohio who had some baseball connections. He got me a tryout with the Cleveland Indians Wilkes-Barre farm club. The only problem was the team was training in Sumpter, South Carolina.
During spring break in 1941, I got on a train and traveled all night to Sumpter. I played shortstop at that time and worked out at that position the next day with the Wilkes-Barre team. Then I played for them in a doubleheader. I went 0-for-8.
Surprisingly, I was offered a contract for $75 a month. I turned that down. I wanted to go back to school. I also knew, along with everyone else, that the United States would be at war and that when that happened I was going to either enlist or be drafted.
I attended the University of Florida in the September session of 1941–42. I boxed there, played basketball and baseball. I decided then that I really wanted to make a career for myself in pro baseball.
I paid my own way going to a Boston Red Sox farm club in Virginia that was under the auspices of Herb Pennock, the former great left-handed pitcher for the Red Sox, who was their farm director. After I had worked out three or four days, the manager of the team called me into his hotel room.
“Young man,” he said, “you’re never going to be a baseball player. You better go on home and get a lunch pail. I mean it.”
I was crushed. I went back to my room and told the fellow I was rooming with what the manager had said. “That’s crazy,” my roomie said. “You can play. You know, there is a scout, Frank Stein, who runs the YMCA here. He told me that he has been watching you play, and he really likes you.”
I met with Frank Stein and learned that the third baseman on the Thomasville, North Carolina, team in the North Carolina State League had broken his leg. I went down there on a long bus trip and was told to find Jimmy Gruzdis, the manager of the team. Some way or other I found him. I drove down with him to a gas station. While Gruzdis was getting gasoline, he opened up the glove compartment and got out a contract. I signed right then and there for $90 a month. Amazing! I wound up going to the same town, the same league, that Cleveland wanted to send me to the year before for $75 a month, so my holdout netted me $15 a month more.
I played one half season at Thomasville and then went into the navy. There I played more baseball and did some boxing. When I came out of the service, I was under contract to Cleveland, which had a working agreement with Thomasville, the team I played for before I went into the navy.
The Indians assigned me to a spring training base. I reported in full dress uniform and signed a contract to play for Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the Canadian-American League. That was the beginning of my trek to the big leagues.
I went from Pittsfield to Oklahoma City. At the end of that season, I was invited up to the big leagues. I joined the Cleveland Indians in New York in September of 1947. My first major league at bat was against the lefty Joe Page. I pinch hit. I struck out on three pitches.
But it was not until 1950, after what seemed like forever in the minors for me, that my time finally came. I became a regular for Cleveland. I hit thirty-seven home runs my rookie season, a record for rookies until Mark McGwire came along and broke it thirty-seven years later.
All through the climb to the big leagues, my aunt Sari kept a scrapbook of every game I ever played in starting in North Carolina. She was a great booster, as was my mother who remarried and lived in New York. She would come to all of the games I played at Yankee Stadium and kvell that her boy had made it.
From Growing Up Baseball by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey Frommer & Frederic J. Frommer. Excerpted with permission.