Monday is Memorial Day in America.
A year and a half ago I was researching the story of Eddie Mathew’s famous “Magnolia Tree Home Run” hit at Atlanta’s old Ponce de Leon Park in 1950. While studying the dimensions and layout of the old park, I came across mention of a plaque dedicated in 1946 to the Atlanta Crackers players who were killed in World War II: Troy Furr, Frank Haggerty, Duck McKee, James Stewart and Milt Rosenstein. Because I’m easily sidetracked and distracted, I looked up the five players and discovered that one, Milt Rosenstein, had never played with the Crackers. I wondered “why”? but managed to summon enough fortitude to stay on the subject of the Magnolia Tree Home Run. But, of course, the name “Milt Rosenstein” went into my “Card Ideas” folder for future research.
When the day came to finally get around to finding out the story behind Milt Rosenstein’s name being on the plaque in Ponce de Leon Park, I discovered a truly bittersweet story that perfectly exemplifies the sacrifices we honor on a Memorial Day. So, without further preamble, I bring you the story of Milt “Rosey” Rosenstein and why we pay tribute to him and the thousands of men and women who gave up their lives so that we may grow up and live in freedom.
Milton was the third child of Isadore and Rose Rosenstein, Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia. When Milt was born in 1920, the Rosenstein’s were running a boardinghouse in Hunter, a small town 90 miles north of Manhattan in the Catskill Mountains. Hunter is made up of two villages, Hunter and Tannersville, the Rosenstein’s boardinghouse being in Hunter Village. Milt went to Ellenville High, where he lettered in basketball and baseball. He was a sturdy 6-foot left-hander who possessed a nice curveball and could play first base and the outfield with equal skill.
After graduating, Milt, inevitably called “Rosey” by teammates and friends, hooked up with the Saugerties A.C. semi-pro baseball team, based in Saugerties, New York, a large Hudson River town about 40 miles from Hunter. In the years before World War II, most areas of the country could boast several talented semi-pro teams, sponsored by towns, factories, small businesses and athletic clubs. The better ones paid their players and often provided them cushy weekday jobs. In the years before television, townspeople turned out in droves to watch their local semi-pros take on rival towns or barnstorming teams. Saugerties was no different. Calling Cantine Memorial Field their home base, the Saugerties A.C. played a schedule of games against local clubs as well as touring Negro League and barnstorming teams.
On the Saugerties A.C.’s the left handed Rosey was paired with righty Eddie Wallace to give their team a good one-two punch. Wallace, a more experienced pitcher, was given the ball against Negro League teams such as the New York Black Yankees and Homestead Grays, while Rosey pitched against local Hudson River clubs. His most memorable game with Saugerties was against the convict team at Sing Sing Prison. In the 1930s, Sing Sing had developed an outstanding athletic program in an attempt to rehabilitate its inmates, and big league teams such as the Yankees and Giants were regularly playing exhibition games against the prison. On August 10, 1940, Rosey held the prisoners to four hits as Saugerties beat Sing Sing, 2-1.
“Rosey” Rosenstein’s record pitching semi-pro ball in the Catskills led to his being signed by Miami Beach of the Class D Florida East Coast League. The Flamingos were managed by former Brooklyn Dodger Max Rosenfeld. Besides managing, Rosenfeld filled in as an outfielder and was the Flamingos’ president and business manager. He’d go on to become one of the most prominent figures in Miami sporting circles, acting as a baseball scout as well as organizing fishing tournaments and boating clubs.
Rosey was paired with a slightly more experienced lefty, Gene Bearden. I bring up Gene Bearden for two reasons: the first I’ll tell you about in two paragraphs below, and the second will become apparent at the end of this story.
Gene Bearden had won 18 games for Miami Beach in 1940 and was expected to be the staff ace in ’41. However, the team’s new southpaw surpassed everyone’s expectation by being the knock-out star of the Florida East Coast League. Rosey won 20 games for the Flamingos and led the league with 238 strikeouts, quite an accomplishment for a first-year professional. Among the gems he pitched that season was a 2-hit 11-0 shutout over the Cocoa Fliers in May and a 15 strikeout game against the Miami Wahoos in June.
Now, I had brought up Gene Bearden because he would go on to play in the majors. While not a household name today, Bearden was a hot shot prospect in 1941 whose career, like many others, would be delayed and/or ended by service in the war – in Bearden’s case, wounds suffered in battle. When he did reach the majors with Cleveland in 1947, Bearden won 20 games as a rookie, and helped lead the Tribe to the World Championship the following year. In the off season he was well known enough to play himself in two Hollywood pictures, The Stratton Story and The Kid From Cleveland. Age and war wounds took their toll after 1949, and Bearden was out of baseball four years later.
On the 1941 Flamingos, Bearden won 17 games with a 2.40 ERA, while Rosenstein won 20 and posted an ERA of 2.83 facing the same players. At this point, the two were essentially posting the same kind of numbers, the comparison between the pair making it apparent that Rosey had the beginning stages of talent needed to progress to the majors.
Besides being the team’s starting southpaw, Rosey also played in the Flamingos outfield when not on the mound. He was selected to the All-Star team and capped off the season by pitching Miami Beach to the league championship in the playoffs. As early as August, three big league teams were seriously interested in Rosey, including the Yankees and Giants. However, Miami Beach had a working agreement with the Atlanta Crackers which gave them an option to draft a player each year. Atlanta chose Rosenstein over Bearden and tabbed him for a delivery date of spring, 1942. In the days before major league expansion, the Atlanta Crackers were the finest baseball team in the south, regularly leading in attendance and serving as the launchpad for many big league careers. However, before he could play another professional game, Rosey Rosenstein was drafted into the U.S. Army.
After two years of training in the States, Rosey was posted to L Company of the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division. In October Rosey, now a Staff Sergeant, was part of General MacArthur’s “I will return” campaign to liberate the Philippine Islands from Japan. The 126th Infantry went ashore at the island of Leyte on November 28, 1944, part of the 200,000 invasion force. Within a week the unit was bloodied in battle against the Japanese when they fought their way up the Pinamopoan-Ormoc highway and took the town of Limon in hand to hand fighting. Somewhere along the way, Rosenstein was wounded. In what has to go down as solid proof what a fighter and stand-up man Milt Rosenstein had become, he turned down a chance to be evacuated from the front. In what would be his final letter home, Rosey wrote that he had been discharged from the hospital and, “They wanted to send me home, but, I can’t leave my buddies. We’re so short handed. Please forgive me. I volunteered to stay.”
On November 28 Rosey was back in the thick of it. His actions that day led to his being awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, but in the process he was wounded again, this time much more seriously than before. By the time the sun set, Milton Rosenstein had died in a field hospital. A career that began so bright in Miami Beach was snuffed out on an island in the Philippines.
I had brought up Rosey’s 1941 Flamingos teammate Gene Bearden because his baseball career was also affected by World War II. And while Rosenstein paid the ultimate price, Bearden survived the torpedoing of his ship in the Pacific with a severely fractured skull and crushed kneecap. A steel plate in his head and reconstructive surgery on his knee enabled Bearden to reach the majors, but not for long. It is something to sit and contemplate what would have become of Rosenstein, Bearden and millions of others had war not erupted in 1939.
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According to Gary Beddingfield’s tremendous Baseball in Wartime website, Milt Rosenstein is one of 137 former professional baseball players who lost their lives in military service during World War II. Beddingfield’s two sites, Baseball in Wartime and Baseball’s Greatest Sacrifice are the absolute best resources on the war and our National Pastime, and were a great source to compliment my contemporary newspaper research when writing this story.