Late softball star Harry ‘Coon’ Rosen lived life on his own terms
From defying his authoritarian father and becoming a star softball pitcher to punching Al Capone and living to tell about it, the longtime Las Vegas staple always did things his way
LAS VEGAS — One hundred years ago, the legend and lore of Harry Rosen took root when the 12-year-old ace led Von Humboldt School to a YMCA baseball crown.
He would guide the University of Illinois to a conference championship in 1931. When his father made him decline a contract with the
St. Louis Cardinals, he barnstormed the nation and found fame as a beguiling fast-pitch softball hurler.
Along the way, Rosen would pop Al Capone in his snout and live to pitch another day and would make the Houston Astros resemble schoolboys. ‘‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’’ noted him. He’d land in the premier softball hall of fame, in Oklahoma.
Billionaire Kirk Kerkorian was on a first-name basis with Harry, as was actor Burt Lancaster, entertainer Roy Rogers, singers Lola Falana and Dionne Warwick, actor Gianni Russo and many other celebrities and baseball players.
A star among stars.
Rosen, who died in 1997, also was a calculating businessman. Even when donning a yellow three-piece suit, he commanded
‘‘I was so intimidated by him,’’ says grandson Scott Rosen, 61. ‘‘He was bigger, huger than life.’’
A mathematical whiz, Harry never
required an adding machine or a calculator, a gift he would peacock on a San Diego TV show. Eight hundred fifty-six times 23? He’d answer 19,688 in half a heartbeat.
‘‘A character,’’ daughter Penny Rosen Van Overbeek says. ‘‘Some of this stuff . . . crazy. He had a wonderful sense of humor. My friends adored him. They’d come over to see me but go looking for him. With a couple of drinks, he could be very entertaining.’’
However, Harry never divulged to any of his three children that YMCA triumph,
Capone, his epic feat in the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, the nuances of greyhounds and thoroughbreds in Phoenix and Tijuana, Mexico, or the Vegas jai-alai scene. He never discussed the ogre that compelled him to
alter his name.
All of that emerged when wife Anne died in 1989, when Scott sold his home near San Diego to room with his grandfather at the Marie Antoinette condo complex in Las
Vegas, when the Windy City sporting fable became fact, became real, became human.
‘‘He finally talked when Scott moved in with him,’’ says Penny, 78. ‘‘We could never get anything out of him. He blocked out
everything, so we just didn’t bother. When Scott moved in, he opened up and told Scott so much.
‘‘Then he got braggadocious.’’
CALL HIM MR. ROSEN
At Hoover High in San Diego, Scott maintained minimal grades for athletic eligibility. His grandfather attended a game in which Scott hit a home run. The Cardinal would win by 10 runs. But in his final trip to the plate, he struck out.
‘‘You better give it up,’’ Harry told Scott.
He meant it.
‘‘Shattered me,’’ Scott says. ‘‘I guess that’s how his dad had motivated him.’’
Sol Rosenfeldt left no positive impressions on the lone son of his four offspring. Born in Nebraska, Harry was raised in Chicago. He must have been just as shattered when Sol forced him to reject that offer from the Cardinals. Only bums, his dad believed, played sports for a living.
Harry came that close to joining the famed Gashouse Gang, the Cardinals’ dynamo that won the World Series in 1934. A softball magazine would call him The Forgotten Hero.
‘‘He felt cheated,’’ Scott says. ‘‘He did not care for his dad. I think he had a lot of resentment, a lot of built-up animosity. I think it bothered him, but it really did open other doors.’’
Which factored into the shortening of his surname and the alteration of his given name, legalese that will be addressed.
Instead of playing alongside Leo Durocher and Dizzy Dean with the Cardinals, Harry applied his considerable aptitude with numbers and an accounting degree to audit tax returns for the Internal Revenue Service.
The diamond, however, tugged at his heart. At the 1933 World’s Fair in his own backyard, he dominated the first World
Series of Softball. For the amateur J.L. Friedman Boosters, he set the tone for a title, throwing eight times over three days in the single-elimination tournament that attracted 55 teams and more than 350,000 fans.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt noticed. His New Deal spawned the Works Progress Administration, which oversaw the construction of 3,026 athletic fields, mostly softball diamonds, across the country in 1935-40.
‘‘[FDR] pushed for people to play fast-pitch softball,’’ author Mike Martin wrote in a chronicle of the sport’s history.
The fair also launched Harry, who went 108-11 that season. It became his vocation. He played four more seasons for Friedman before relocating to Arizona to represent the Phoenix Lettuce Kings until 1945, Sol be damned.
‘‘He wanted to play ball, and . . . he was getting paid,’’ Scott said.
Harry partook in 13 consecutive softball World Series, earning first-team All-America consideration eight times and winning MVP honors five consecutive years. He
accumulated 3,000 victories. Of his 300
no-hitters, 195 were perfect games.
In 1935, Ripley highlighted a doubleheader in which he lost both games 1-0 despite yielding only a single hit and striking out 37 of 39 opposing batters. Errors led to the defeats.
Anne gave birth to son Ron in October 1937. Twin girls Penny and Monty were born in February 1942. Because Harry’s many trophies, plaques and mementos so packed the family’s garage in Phoenix, its two cars were always parked in the driveway.
From her home in Bakersfield, California, Penny recalls her father’s mystery gig, from about 1946 through 1950, at the State Capitol building in Phoenix. Harry also frequented the city’s dog and horse tracks. In 1950, he accepted John S. Alessio’s offer to move to San Diego and manage his Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana.
The family still bopped back and forth between San Diego and Phoenix for the next five or six years. Caliente workers called Alessio ‘‘John’’ and Harry ‘‘Mr. Rosen.’’ On occasion, though, they would witness their boss’ lighter side, playing softball with him when he invited them to San Diego.
‘‘Those Mexican workers, my God, they worshipped him,’’ Penny says. ‘‘They were like his entourage.’’
In Tijuana, Harry concocted the 5-10, a wager that returned a bundle to those who tabbed the victors of Races 5 through 10, at the horse track during the day. It was the precursor to the popular Pick Six.
At the nightly dog sessions, he unveiled the 49er — picking the winners of Races 4 through 9.
In San Diego, the family stayed in luxury at the Imig Manor. At the pool, when the kids were hungry, they would shuffle off to the manor’s diner. Ron babysat the broods of Lancaster and Rogers. Today it’s The Lafa-
Ron’s wife, Pat, gave birth to Scott in 1959. The lone hazy memory Scott has of his
father is from Christmas 1961, when he joyfully unwrapped a box containing a toy helicopter his dad had handed him.
On Jan. 24, 1962, Ron was killed at Caliente, where he was working for Harry, in an accident Scott and Penny only would describe as horrific, too painful to recall, much less
reveal. He was 24. Monty, Penny’s twin, was 67 when she died of cancer in October 2009.
Penny and her nephew always have been close.
‘‘I’ve been insane about him since the day he was born,’’ she says.
That’s the sweetness. For almost 30 years, Harry administered the sour.
STRONGER THAN . . .
The Padres became a major-league
expansion franchise in 1969. Harry and Scott, with others, attended many games. Scott lived with his mother atop Mission Gorge, nearly within view of San Diego Stadium.
First baseman Nate Colbert, a Padre those first six seasons and a neighbor to Scott,
befriended everyone and often shuttled Scott and a pal to and from games.
‘‘No. 17,’’ Scott says, recalling fondly the uniform number Colbert wore with the
By 3:30, Scott and his friend would be playing catch in the outfield or hitting pop-ups to each other as the big-leaguers lounged in the clubhouse, preparing for night games.
Cubs visits sparked a holiday. Harry was tight with team broadcasters Arne Harris, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, who had played at Illinois several years after Rosen. There would be dinner engagements and other festivities.
At the park, Harry hung out with his buddies in or near the radio booth. Cubs players took to Scott and ensconced him in their dugout — during games — for good luck.
Colbert strolled by and did a triple-take when he noticed his neighborhood chum sitting in there with the enemy.
‘‘You traitor!’’ Colbert said in mock anger.
‘‘Sorry, Nate,’’ Scott answered.
After Billy Williams had smacked a home run in one game, he exchanged high-fives all the way down the dugout line to Scott.
‘‘Hey, nice hit!’’ Scott said.
‘‘Oh, I know!’’ Williams replied.
‘‘I knew all those Cubs,’’ Scott says. ‘‘Second baseman Glenn Beckert, starting pitcher Ferguson Jenkins . . . they all respected Grandpa as an athlete and a friend. I had a lot of fun when I was a kid.’’
Cubs rookie Burt Hooton, who owned a knuckle-curve and had tossed a no-hitter in his fourth major-league start, took Scott aside to teach him the basics of the nasty pitch, the grip of the ball, the release.
Conversely, Scott’s grandpa — so strong he once tore a San Diego phone book in half before his bug-eyed grandson — revealed little. Without a face mask or protective cup, Scott caught Harry’s bullet underhanded softball deliveries with a sponge squeezed inside his catcher’s mitt.
‘‘Grandpa was 6-3, 6-4 . . . stronger than crap,’’ Scott says. ‘‘He had pioneered the figure-eight delivery, and I couldn’t figure out where it came from or how it went so fast. Blew my mind. And he threw a knuckler — with a softball! Amazing. But he never gave up those secrets.’’
Scott accompanied Harry to Caliente on Aug. 5, 1971, to find the grandstand and part of the paddock ablaze. Jack Murphy, the
famous sportswriter whose name would adorn the San Diego stadium in 1981-97, was there, too.
‘‘I met Jack Murphy that day,’’ Scott says. ‘‘The next day, I was on the front page of
the San Diego Union, where he had his column. He wrote, ‘A bad scene for Scotty Rosen . . . ’ Crazy.’’
Harry took Kerkorian’s offer to run his jai-alai fronton in 1973. When he announced the move to Las Vegas, Scott grinned. Yeah, Scott thought. Showgirls.
His grandpa likely pondered the same sentiment.
Scott did visit, with family, and was struck by how many in the casino greeted his grandfather as ‘‘Mr. Rosen,’’ nearly in full salute, as though he were MacArthur.
Additional aura for the fable.
In the early 1980s, after a tragic fire at the MGM — now Bally’s — interest in the exotic Basque sport waned. Harry retired. In 1989, Anne died. As the only single adult in the
immediate family, Scott relocated to Las
Vegas to comfort his grieving grandfather.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
Scott sold his home in Vista, packed a
U-Haul and arrived at the Marie Antoinette, with convenient Strip access at Koval and Paradise, on a 116-degree midsummer day. Harry hadn’t said a peep about the heat.
Having prospered for so long, Harry had become accustomed to having maids and assorted gofers tend to the more mundane aspects of his life. Scott, for instance, had to teach his grandpa how to pump gas.
Didn’t matter. A month into Scott’s relo-
cation, the engine of Harry’s white whip
exploded. Scott’s unofficial duties now
included chauffeur. Harry appreciated the company. Penny calls her father a world-class monophobe; he’d welcome an alligator into his home, she says, if the alternative meant being alone.
Scott and Harry patronized the Gold Coast or Continental, the Silver Sevens
today. Harry would lose at video poker, then win it all back at the poker table. Not a gambler, Scott went along for the ride, drinks, stories and new friends.
They rarely paid for anything anywhere and never stood in a line. They slept in and sat by the pool. Caesar’s salad, matzo brei (matzo crackers and eggs), schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and potato kugel fueled Harry.
They’d stay out till 4 in the morning, then do it all over again. Scott’s timing was prescient, for UNLV won its first national hoops championship in the spring of 1990. Vegas erupted in communal glory.
Of course, Harry had friends who had season tickets to the Thomas & Mack Center. He and Scott went to a few games, and Scott vividly recalls a 116-76 thrashing of Pacific.
Scott once surveyed his grandfather’s interesting wardrobe, including that yellow three-piece deal.
‘‘A sharp dresser,’’ Scott says. ‘‘They were nice suits, all tailored.’’ He laughs. ‘‘But nothing I would wear.’’
Warwick’s door was opposite Harry’s.
Falana lived next door. Russo occupied a pad down the hall, where Scott hung out with the actor’s younger sister. A couple of times, the man who so famously had played James Caan punching bag Carlo Rizzi in ‘‘The Godfather’’ deflected Scott from visiting.
‘‘He’d say, ‘You really shouldn’t come over; Marlon is here,’ ’’ Scott says. ‘‘Marlon Brando was one of his friends, but I never met him. My grandfather told me, ‘Don’t get starstruck.’ [Harry] also loved watching golf,
especially Mark Calcavecchia. He’d say, ‘Watch this guy! Watch him!’ I don’t know why.’’
Scott was shocked when a Von Humboldt schoolmate visited Harry, whose peer was incontinent, frail, quiet. Harry, who often walked five miles a day up and down the Strip, was hale and outgoing. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark.
In fact, former jai-alai player Kenny Pyle, the rare American on the MGM roster, and veteran gambler Rich Dunberg told me Harry had a yen for cocktail waitresses and female bet-runners. Any player caught fraternizing with them, Harry told his players, would be sacked.
‘‘Harry didn’t want any competition,’’ Pyle says.
‘‘Oh, yeah,’’ Scott says, grinning lightly. ‘‘Didn’t matter that he was in his 80s and they were in their 20s. He didn’t care. ‘Oh, Grandpa,’ I thought.’’
We’re sitting on uncomfortable couches in the Lakeview Mausoleum at Palm Mortuary on Eastern Avenue. Artificial lighting is beyond bright. Flies buzz around the un-air-conditioned rectangular room. Behind me, over my right shoulder, Harry’s ashes are interred in a vase, in a glassed-in cubicle.
Scott sits in front of me. Behind him, his grandmother’s remains are encased in the exterior of the building. He turns his head over his right shoulder.
‘‘Sorry, Grandma, don’t mean to dis-
respect you,’’ he says softly. He faces me. ‘‘I don’t know if he crossed the line, but he knew how to flirt.’’
Pyle and Dunberg say Harry erred in not allowing trifecta wagering — on the 1-2-3 outcomes of games — at the fronton. Dunberg tried to persuade him, but Harry wouldn’t budge. The trifecta was popular in Connecticut, luring bettors with handsome payouts.
With his keen mathematical facility, however, Harry likely opted not to expose the house to such losses.
His crowning achievement, because it had not been expected, was being inducted into the American Softball Association Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
Rhode Island outfielder Abe Baker and Harry comprised its Class of 1990. Like landing in Cooperstown, New York, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and
Museum, Scott says.
Penny and husband Leo, now deceased, attended the ceremony with Scott and Harry. Grandfather and grandson stayed a week, basking in the dinners and attending tournament games on the hall grounds.
‘‘He was really proud of that,’’ Scott says. ‘‘That proves you’re the best of the best. All of a sudden, he had a chance to reflect on his life and career. He said, ‘Man, I was pretty good!’ At that point, he pulled out some trophies and hung up some plaques. Once I moved in with him, I realized he was like a big teddy bear.’’
In Oklahoma, Scott heard about Capone. In the mid-to-late 1920s, at some diamond, the gangster/softball aficionado discovered Rosen. Once, Capone singled and got into it with the first baseman, Rosen.
‘‘[Capone] said something, and [Harry] punched him in the face,’’ Scott says. ‘‘They were separated.’’
‘‘That’s what they were talking about in Oklahoma,’’ Scott says. ‘‘He was a hero to everybody.’’
They swore Harry was better than Eddie Feigner, the star of A King & His Court, who would field a catcher, first baseman and lone outfielder, challenging all comers. ‘‘The Big Book of Jewish Baseball’’ includes Rosen, with Sandy Koufax and Barney Pelty, as the religion’s elite pitchers.
The Astros of 1976 might concur. Harry knew Bob Denver, the title character in the popular TV comedy ‘‘Gilligan’s Island,’’ a softball nut who helped arrange an exhibition inside the Astrodome in Houston.
Only one Astro, barely fouling a pitch off his bat, made any contact with Harry’s
wickedness. Some of his pitches eclipsed
100 mph on a JUGS gun. He got yanked after five innings.
‘‘He was embarrassing them,’’ Scott says.
Harry was 68.
In Oklahoma, those memories produced howls.
Harry and Scott traveled on to Chicago, where they spent two weeks. Scott met relatives on his grandfather’s side he never knew existed. They attended the major-league -All-Star Game at Wrigley Field, sitting in the front row near comedian Bill Murray.
When they returned to Vegas, Kerkorian visited Harry to reveal his visions for a new MGM property, at Trop and the Strip. Kerkorian hoped to build another fronton that he asked Harry to manage.
‘‘Kerkorian was in casual clothes, no suit, no security guards,’’ Scott says. ‘‘He’d been over before to visit. He said, ‘I want to put jai alai in there, and I want you to run it.’ My grandpa paused, then he said, ‘No, I’m
retired, Kirk.’ ’’
A STUBBORN RACCOON
A special softball from the hall in Oklahoma rests next to the vase in Rosen’s mausoleum cubicle. Look closely at the ball. It’s signed ‘‘Coon Rosen.’’ Harry Rosenfeldt
legally became Coon Rosen.
He might have wanted to ease sportswriters’ jobs, goes one theory, and/or take an eternal jab at his surly father. That’s the surname. On the crude and uncouth streets around Chicago 100 years ago, nicknames could fuse to a guy forever.
And there was Harry, with his lush black mane and, owing to all the time he spent outside, those especially dark areas around his eyes. He most certainly resembled the little bushy-haired nocturnal mammal.
A friend called him the moniker, then
everyone else joined in. He adopted it for life, wearing it like a badge of bravado, an increasingly PC world — and Sol — be damned.
‘‘He loved it,’’ Scott says. ‘‘I never heard anyone ever call him ‘Harry’; it was ‘Coon.’ It was his. He didn’t care what anyone thought. And Capone? He supposedly always said, ‘I want Coon on my team.’ I never heard my grandpa say anything bad about anyone, either.’’
Scott spent a bit more than two years living with his grandfather. In Las Vegas, he met the woman, Maria, who would become his wife, and they have three children.
Scott dotes on a granddaughter.
When he moved out, his grandfather
never suffered for companionship.
‘‘He had a friend . . . he was something else,’’ Scott says.
Anne La Sala, that friend, became his
Scott had been a civilian contractor at Fort Irwin out in the Mojave Desert until he retired last year.
‘‘Nothing better than [soldiers] returning from a deployment and saying how that training had saved their unit,’’ Scott says.
That long chat inside the mausoleum, however, had affected him. He seemed to have enjoyed reliving memories, but they had awakened a profound sense of loss. He became withdrawn, unavailable. Devastated, he wrote in a text message about when his grandfather died. That anguish had resurfaced.
Coon Rosen was 88 when he died Jan. 4, 1997. His gut had ached. He traveled to Palm Springs anyway. The pain intensified. He died from complications during intestinal surgery.
‘‘I think of him a lot and wish he were still around,’’ Scott says. ‘‘I’m convinced he’d be alive today had he gone into the hospital at the first sign of trouble. If he wasn’t so stubborn . . . if anyone could have lived to 105, it was him.’’