It's a good thing former Las Vegas casino executive Al Rosen is remembered more for being a four-time All-Star third baseman for the Cleveland Indians than he was for his years of hiring sports celebrity casino hosts for Caesars Palace and Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City.
For in the former role, Rosen primarily will be remembered as the man who got the ball rolling for the commissioner of baseball’s banning of two of the game’s legends — Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle — for taking jobs with gambling establishments.
Rosen, who worked for Caesars as director of branch operations from 1973-78, died late Friday night. He was 91.
Rosen left the investment business to relocate to Las Vegas with great expectations for his next successful career in the gaming/hospitality industry.
But Rosen’s years in Las Vegas were pretty much uneventful, as his primary function was serving as a trophy hiring of then-Caesars President William “Billy” Weinberger.
As a youngster raised in Cleveland, Weinberger idolized Rosen, who in 1953 was the American League’s MVP and missed earning the Triple Crown by a hair’s breadth. Still, baseball insiders of the early 1970s theorized that Rosen’s real job at Caesars was to regale Weinberger and his pals with tales of Rosen’s colorful baseball career.
Rosen was part of Weinberger’s stable of sports stars placed in cushy jobs in the 1970s at Weinberger-run gaming properties in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. The most famous of them was former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis, a longtime Caesars greeter.
Still, Rosen strived hard to be good at his gaming job, telling reporters at the time that he was learning the ins and outs of the hotel management business to be the most effective employee possible.
Being the best he could be at anything was part of Rosen’s strong work ethic that he talked about in a DVD about his life called “Beating The Odds — The Al Rosen Story." In it, Rosen said he wanted to be remembered simply as “a man who played hard and worked hard.”
During his early days in Las Vegas, Rosen put together a deal with a group of investors including George Steinbrenner to buy the Cleveland Indians. But that deal fell through and Steinbrenner on his own bought the New York Yankees.
Rosen was hired away from Caesars by Steinbrenner in 1978 to serve as president and chief operating officer of the Yankees for one tumultuous season.
During that season, the fiery Billy Martin resigned as Yankee manager after suspending star player Reggie Jackson and making disparaging remarks about both Jackson and Steinbrenner.
In Martin’s 1980 biography, Martin accused Steinbrenner of ordering Rosen to go to the Kansas City hotel where the Yankees team was staying and fire Martin. But Martin beat Rosen to the punch and resigned during a tearful press conference, depriving Rosen of the opportunity to do Steinbrenner’s dirty work.
Rosen left the Yankees soon after, saying he and Steinbrenner were still good friends but that he just could no longer could work for Steinbrenner, who also had roots in Cleveland and had long idolized Rosen as a ballplayer.
Almost immediately after Rosen left the Yankees’ key post, he got a phone call from Weinberger, offering Rosen a job helping him open the $176 million Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. Rosen, 55 at the time, saw it as a golden opportunity and a second chance to be successful in the gaming industry.
But that potential legacy went sour quickly when Rosen reached out to former baseball superstar Willie Mays with a 10-year, $100,000-a-year contract to work for him as a greeter at Park Place on the Boardwalk.
Mays, who was working as a batting coach for the New York Mets at the time, was enticed by the offer, which essentially would require him just to attend Bally’s charity events and play golf with high-rollers who would salivate at the opportunity to rub elbows with “The Say Hey Kid.”
Mays had played golf for years while he was a member of the San Francisco Giants and, at the time of Rosen’s Park Place job offer, had achieved about a 4 handicap. Rosen, in effect, was offering Mays his dream job. But it turned out to be a nightmare and a black eye for baseball.
Shortly after Mays was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, he accepted the job at Park Place, serving officially as the special assistant to the casino president.
Then-Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn — who was openly critical of the gaming industry, especially in Las Vegas, which at the time was in the early stages of developing a AAA team, the Las Vegas Stars (now called the 51s) — told Mays he could no longer be a baseball goodwill ambassador, or have any role in baseball, while he was working for Park Place.
Mays chose to cut his ties with baseball and kept working for Bally’s. Kuhn retired, and in 1985, his replacement, Peter Ueberroth, allowed both Mays and Mickey Mantle to return to baseball. (Mantle also had gone to work for an Atlantic City gaming property, also giving up any standing in Major League Baseball.)
Rosen’s death marked the passing of one of the last ties to the 1948 Cleveland Indians’ World Series championship team. He was the last Indian to earn an AL MVP title, 62 years ago. He played for Cleveland from 1947-1956. During his MVP season, Rosen hit 43 homers and had 145 RBIs. He missed winning the Triple Crown with a .366 batting average, second only to Washington Senator Mickey Vernon, who batted .377.
Rosen led the AL in homers and RBIs twice, earning the pre-politically-correct-era nickname of “The Hebrew Hammer.” Rosen was Jewish, and in those less-enlightened times, he was the victim of anti-Semitic comments from some opposing team ballplayers.
Rosen, a former amateur pugilist and ex-University of Florida fraternity boxing champion, never backed down from potential fistfights with those who called him names. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound infielder got his nose broken 11 times, primarily by the ball taking bad hops on the infield.
After his playing days, Rosen became a baseball executive. He was named the 1987 Sporting News Executive of the Year while he was serving as president and general manager of the Giants (1986-92). Prior to that, Rosen was general manager of the Houston Astros.
Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.