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Hammerin' Hank Greenberg

By Lawrence Richards, June 7, 2015

With a most respectful nod to Mr. Aaron, you were Hammerin’ Hank II.

In very rare occurrences, athletes eclipse sport. Events become embedded in a nation’s consciousness. They help us re-define inclusion for all our citizenry. They reconfigure democracy; a nation’s goal for greatness. Some notable examples are Jackie Robinson, Louis vs. Schmeling, the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team. There is a compelling and appropriate case that Hank Greenberg firmly belongs in this pantheon of inspirational and time-transcending athletes.

Hank Greenberg fostered pride and hope in Jewish people as Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans. He arguably was the recipient of more obscenities and, yes, hatred than any other white ballplayer in the long history of baseball. In the 1930s when he played ball, anti-Semitism was rampant in the United States, and Jews were being persecuted and killed by the Nazis in Europe. He was a hero to his people when a hero was desperately needed. Greenberg and Robinson are connected in seminal ways.

Greenberg was one of the first members of an opposing team to encourage Robinson. His last year as a player was Robinson’s first. In 1947, Jackie’s rookie year, a close play occurred, and Greenberg inadvertently banged hard into Robinson. He apologized and helped Jackie to his feet, softly offering words of support. When asked about the incident, Jackie told the press, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.” Remember what we used to say as kids? “It takes one to know one!”

Greenberg was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village on New Year’s Day, 1911. His parents, Romanian immigrants, soon moved the family to more spacious living quarters in the Bronx. Hank was a big kid, flat-footed and awkward, and he suffered from a bad case of acne as well as a stutter. He was extremely self-conscious and shy. He sought refuge and distinction in sports. He led the Monroe High School basketball team to the championship; he was named New York All-City in soccer. But his passion was baseball.

Greenberg was terrified of looking foolish fielding his chosen position of first base. He maintained a rigorous self-imposed program to improve flexibility, to enhance coordination, and to develop a quick turn and break to the bag. He built a makeshift “sliding pit” in an alley near home and ran wind sprints. Hitting? Well, that was another story. He grew to 6 feet 4 inches, 215 pounds. He terrorized opposing pitchers. He appeared a man playing against boys. He attracted considerable attention from Giant and Yankee birddogs.

The Giants in particular had been looking for a Jewish ballplayer for quite some time. The vast and growing amount of Jewish-Americans living in the city did not go unnoticed. They kept trying to develop most anyone with a Jewish heritage and some potential. They were all seemingly nicknamed, “Rabbi.” Unfortunately for the Giants marketing brass, they all hit like Rabbis. The Yankees? C’mon, a young Jewish slugger, living in the shadows of the stadium! In 1929, the 18-year-old was offered a hefty contract. Greenberg declined; they had a pretty fair incumbent first baseman named Lou Gehrig. It was a very wise decision. Had he joined the Yanks, he wouldn’t have trotted to first until 1939, when the Iron Horse’s consecutive-game streak ended. He signed with the Detroit Tigers.

His Orthodox parents were alarmed and mortified. Jewish boys become doctors, lawyers, and teachers. “My son is a baseball player, my son the bum! This should happen to us! Oy Vey!” Mr. Greenberg came around fairly quickly, not so his mom. However, years later when Hank became a household name, neighbors asked for her autograph. She proudly complied but insisted on writing her name in Yiddish. But that was later. 

Nineteen-year-old Hank Greenberg with the Detroit Tigers in 1930.
Credit: 90feetofperfection.com

Greenberg spent three years in the Tigers minor league system, hitting well over .300 with increasingly impressive power numbers. He honed his fielding skills, and in 1932, his final year at AAA, he led Beaumont to the Texas League championship. He hit 39 homers, had 131 RBIs, and was voted MVP.

While at Beaumont an incident occurred that illuminates the social ethos of the time. Greenberg was in the outfield when a spectator ran onto the field. He approached Greenberg, stared at him, and circled him slowly. Greenberg dropped his glove and balled his fists as security guards raced from the stands. The man said, “I don’t see any.” Greenberg muttered, “Any what?” The seemingly confused man replied, “Horns. You’re Jewish right? I don’t see any horns.” As the man shaking his head was led away, Greenberg used his glove to cover his laughter; true story. To paraphrase Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, he must have thought, “This sure isn’t the Bronx.”

In 1933 Hank became a Tiger regular, putting the baseball world on notice that a potential star had arrived, batting .301 with 87 RBIs. The next year he more than fulfilled that promise. He hit .339, 26 homers, and drove in 139 RBIs. His slugging percentage of .600 was third in the AL, just behind two guys named Foxx and Gehrig, ahead of Babe Ruth. He battled successfully against opposing pitchers, but that wasn’t his big war, not even close. 

Members of the Detroit Tigers’ hard-hitting, fast-fielding infield—Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Rogell and Marv Owen—are set to the meet the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1934 World Series.

Many have reported Henry Ford, who dominated Detroit, harbored and fostered deep anti-Semitic feelings. Ford sponsored the infamous and fraudulent “Protocols of Zion.” Father Coughlin filled the airwaves with rants against “The International Banker Conspirator Jew.” “The Good Father” characterized the Jewish psyche as dominated by greed, godlessness, and cowardice. Enter Henry Benjamin Greenberg. He responded to the constant barrage of foul epithets with his bat and glove. Well, most of the time. Often the vitriolic and hateful insults reached a level that he felt compelled to respond in “other ways.” He took matters into his own hands, figuratively and literally. This was one Jewish guy who didn’t call a lawyer.

Chicago White Sox Manager Jimmy Dykes was particularly vicious. Greenberg challenged Dykes to meet after the game. The second it was over, he raced to the clubhouse in search of Dykes. He was told Dykes left early, on “urgent business.” One can assume survival comes under the heading of “urgent business.” Another time, Greenberg called out the entire Yankees team. Let’s be clear: He called out everyone in the dugout. All remained seated; no takers; wise decision.

Late in ’34, the Tigers were in a tight pennant race. September 10 was Rosh Hashanah, a significant Jewish holiday. As my good friend, historian Joe Dorinson, put it, “The call was play or pray.” The topic was hotly debated by fans, sportswriters, and clergymen. Greenberg arrived at a Solomon-like compromise. He’d play Rosh Hashanah, then sit out 10 days later in honor of the holiest holiday, Yom Kippur. Someone upstairs (way upstairs) must have approved. On Rosh Hashanah, Hank hit two home runs in a 2–1 Tiger win. On Yom Kippur, they lost. The Detroit Free Press ran a headline, “Happy New Year!” printed in Hebrew. Henry Ford was unavailable for comment. Poet and columnist Edgar Guest:

We shall miss him in the infield and we shall miss him at the bat, but he’s true to his religion—and we honor him for that!

In 1935 Greenberg became a force. He started the season on a tear, and never let up. He ended with a league-leading 170 RBIs, 389 total bases, 98 extra-base hits, tied Foxx with 39 homers, and batted .328. The Tigers won the World Series even though Greenberg broke his wrist in Game 2. In a unique occurrence, he was voted AL MVP unanimously. In April 1936, the same wrist was re-broken, ending his season. 

Commissioner Landis presents Hank Greenberg with the AL Most Valuable Player Award in 1935.

In the period of 1937–1940, Greenberg averaged 43 homers, 148 RBIs, and 100 extra-base hits. No one, aside from Babe Ruth, had more remarkably consistent high-end power stats in a four-year span. In 1940, he won his third home run title (in six years), had an incredible slugging percentage of .670 (44 points ahead of Joe DiMaggio), and finished second to Ted Williams in runs scored and OBP, with a .340 average. DiMaggio, a man who holstered his opinions and not known for hyperbole, had this to say, “Greenberg is one of the truly great hitters, and when I first saw him at bat he made my eyes pop out!” To adjust to the emergence of hard-hitting but poor-fielding Rudy York, he was asked to shift from first to left field. He responded by winning his second MVP, the first player to receive that honor playing two different positions.

The war in Europe was intensifying; the seemingly unbelievable reports of Nazi persecution were gaining undeniable credibility. Within the American-Jewish community, relatives fled to the United States seeking refuge. They arrived with stories of horror: entire families seemingly disappeared. Hank Greenberg said, “I was representing a couple of million Jews. . . . I felt I had a responsibility. As time went by if I hit a home run I felt I was hitting one against Hitler.”

He was the first American Leaguer drafted. He was rejected because of flat feet. Greenberg insisted on a reexamination. This time he passed. On December 5, 1941, Congress declared men 28 or older would be discharged. This was two days before Pearl Harbor. Whew! Now Greenberg in his prime could again receive a yearly salary of $55,000 instead $400, play ball instead of fight a war. Not if you’re Hank Greenberg. He promptly reenlisted in the Army Air Force and was commissioned as a first lieutenant. He easily could have chosen cushy state-side duty talking baseball, selling war bonds, maybe some instructional clinics, while traveling in style befitting his celebrity status. Not if you’re Lieutenant Greenberg.

He volunteered for the dangerous assignment of scouting potential locations for B-29 bomber bases in the Asian Theater. Greenberg earned four battle stars and served almost four years, the longest tour of duty of any Major Leaguer. He left with the rank of captain. 

Just a few days after being discharged, Hank Greenberg—the first player to return to Major League Baseball after the war—received a warm welcome from young fans at Briggs Stadium.

He rejoined the Tigers on July 1, 1945, and homered in his first game. His return propelled Detroit to a pennant after falling back among the league leaders. His grand slam clinched the AL Championship in the last game of the season. They beat the Cubs in seven to win the World Series. There were a combined total of only three home runs, two by Greenberg. He was just warming up for his first full season back. In ’46 he was tops in home runs and RBIs, the fourth time he achieved that parlay. Only ahead of him in slugging percentage and total bases was Ted Williams. Hammerin’ Hank redux!

After such an outstanding performance, the Tigers of course wanted him back. They had an odd way of expressing their desire. They offered a contract all right, but with a reduction in salary. Insulted, Greenberg said he’d rather retire. Detroit cut a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Hank became the first player to earn over $80,000. He returned to playing first, and in his last season he gave the Bucs their money’s worth. He became the first to hit 25 or more homers in both leagues. The stands in left field became known as “Greenberg’s Garden.” He also served as the role model and mentor for a talented but undisciplined future Hall of Famer, Ralph Kiner.

In his final season in the majors, playing first base with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, Greenberg hit 25 home runs.

Aside from the impressive aforementioned “Greenberg firsts,” consider these: The first Jewish superstar in team sports; the first of his religion elected to the Hall of Fame (1956); the first Jewish owner/general manager; one of the first (and few) to testify on behalf of Curt Flood in his landmark case concerning free agency.

Greenberg married Carol Gimbel (Gimbel’s Department Store), and they raised three children before divorcing in 1958. He remarried in 1966 and became a highly successful investment broker. He succumbed to cancer in 1986. No doubt he went down swinging roundhouse rights.

The last line in poet Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great” is a most deserving and fitting epitaph for Henry Benjamin Greenberg:

“And left the vivid air signed by their honor.”

 

The author would like to acknowledge the Ciesla Foundation and Avia Kempner's award-winning film on Hank Greenbergh The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

 

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