Making Of: Hank Greenberg’s 250th Home Run
Original artwork by Joey Enos.
On May 6, 1941, Hank Greenberg was feted at Tiger Stadium, his services to the Detroit baseball club honored with a gold watch inscribed with the names of his teammates. He’d won the previous season’s American League MVP Award and led the Tigers to the pennant, but this was not about that. The guy was only 30 years old and already ticketed for Cooperstown, but this was not about that either—not directly, anyway.
The U.S. military had only recently begun its conscription process prior to full participation in World War II, and, based largely on being unmarried, Greenberg was among the first prominent athletes to qualify. It was known when the season began that his civilian status would likely expire before June. Even as the Tigers played Cleveland in their second game of the season, Michigan’s local draft board 23 announced a class 1A rating for Greenberg on the basis of a medical examination earlier in the day. “I’ll ask no deferment,” the slugger told the New York Times, “and will be ready when called.”
Sure enough, Greenberg’s number, 621, was announced shortly thereafter. Thus did he find himself amid significant fanfare prior to Detroit’s May 6 game against the Yankees, his last one prior to reporting. The festivities, which in addition to his watch included a pen-and-pencil set presented to him by the Briggs Stadium grounds crew, bore overt shades of an involuntary retirement party.
For all anybody knew, it may well have been. At age 30, Greenberg was still in his athletic prime, but there was no set timetable for his return. He was also sitting on 247 career home runs, the same number with which he’d opened the season. The number was significant to Greenberg, who’d figured to have long since passed the 250 milestone but struggled through a horrid opening-month slump, accumulating only 10 hits in April, none a home run.
May began differently. In the four-game stretch leading up to his farewell, Greenberg went 5-for-13 with three doubles, raising his batting average 34 points. With time running short, however, it appeared that the slugger would depart for indefinite war leave short of the round home-run number upon which he’d focused.
For all of Greenberg’s fabled power—he paced the American League in home runs three times, including a Major League record for right-handed batters with 58 in 1938—he had never connected for three in a game. Thus did he content himself on the evening of May 5, at a private party thrown by the Tigers at the Franklin Hills Country Club, with the idea that his legacy, even short of the home run milestone, was assured.
Then, in his first at-bat of his final game, Greenberg pounded a Tiny Bonham fastball into the left field stands. Now he was only two away.
An inning later he did it again, this time with a man aboard. It was the 28th time he had homered twice in a game. Now he was at 249, one away. It was only the third inning.
Greenberg couldn’t help but consider the circumstance. He imagined the drama of achieving his goal—his first-ever three-homer game to reach 250—in his send-off before serving his country. “All of a sudden,” he said later, “I was intensely interested in hammering one into the stands.”
Greenberg had always been an unintentional home-run hitter, seeking only to put good wood on the ball and settling for whatever followed. Now, however, he wanted that longball. His next at-bat, in the fifth inning against reliever Atley Donald, came with the Tigers leading, 5–1. Greenberg, unneeded as a base runner, aimed for the fences.
He didn’t come close, lofting a fly ball to Charlie Keller in medium-deep left field.
His next time up, in the seventh, resulted in a popup to catcher Bill Dickey.
When Greenberg stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth inning and Detroit ahead, 6–4, he knew that it was almost certainly his final shot at the milestone. The bases were loaded, with Donald still on the mound in his fifth inning of work, pitching on fumes. The right-hander’s first three pitches sailed in wide of the strike zone.
Greenberg found himself on the cusp of an outcome nobody wanted. Taking the bat out of his hands with a walk, even one that drove in a run, would be a profound letdown. “Even [Yankees catcher] Bill Dickey was rooting for me,” Greenberg said later. “He kept pleading with his pitcher to whip in a fast one, letter high.”
Finally, Donald did. His fourth pitch, a fastball, was letter high, exactly where Greenberg wanted it. If ever there was a nod to history at the expense of personal statistics, this was it. Greenberg’s eyes widened. He rocked back in his stance and uncorked his mightiest swing.
At that point, Donald was entirely willing to accommodate the would-be war hero. His next pitch floated in as fat as the first. Again, Greenberg attacked. Again, he missed.
Now the count was full. Greenberg represented what was likely his team’s final out of the game. Barring a foul ball, one more pitch was all he would get. Among Yankees pitchers, only Red Ruffing had allowed more home runs than Donald over the previous three seasons, and Ruffing was the defending league leader in the category. Greenberg knew what he wanted, and he knew what he was going to get, and he knew how to achieve the only goal he had remaining in the sport.
When Donald lolled another meatball toward the plate, served up to the slugger as if on a tee, Greenberg put everything he had into his swing, intent on giving himself and his fans the most sensational sendoff possible.
The ending though, was pure Mudville—mighty Greenberg struck out. Number 250 would have to wait.
Hank Greenberg at Fort Custer in 1941.
The next day, Greenberg was at the United States Army induction center, signing upwards of 1,000 autographs and posing for newsreel cameras while a 13-piece WPA orchestra blared what an attending officer referred to as “morale-building” music. At 1:30 p.m. the new enlistee boarded a train bound for Fort Custer, Michigan, headquarters of the Fifth Division. Thus began his transition from baseball’s highest-paid player to lowly private, exchanging his $55,000 annual salary for $5.25 per week.
Greenberg was assigned to Camp Livingston, Louisiana, where he joined the Thirty-Second Division. Soon he was promoted to private first class, then to corporal in charge of a five-man antitank gun crew, then to sergeant of the machine gun company of the Eleventh Infantry. It was impressive, but hardly enough to pull his mind from the game. “As soon as I get out of the Army I’ll play ball again,” he vowed. “It’s the only thing I can do.”
Then in November the War Department issued a discharge order for selectees age 28 and older. Greenberg qualified. He’d be back with the Tigers before training camp opened.
He left the Army on December 5. After 180 days in the service, Greenberg headed home to New York, he said, to do little but “wait for spring.”
Two days later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Greenberg re-enlisted immediately, saying that under the new circumstances, “baseball is out the window.”
Thus began a three-year journey that saw the slugger emerge from officer candidate school as a second lieutenant, get promoted to director of physical training of the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command at Fort Worth, Texas, and ultimately end up in China as administrative commanding officer for the first B-29 overseas base of the Twentieth Air Force, in charge of the cutting-edge Superfortress bomber. His adventures were not those of a pampered ballplayer hoping to get out, but of a bona-fide military man, doing everything possible to help the cause.
On June 14, 1945, four years after he first reported and two months before Japan officially surrendered, Greenberg received an honorable discharge. Within a week he was working out with the Tigers. On July 1 he put on a uniform and trotted out to left field in Briggs Stadium for a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.
The number 249 had been hanging from his neck for more than four years, across continents, job descriptions and military ranks. As the war dragged on, the mark looked increasingly like a permanent fixture on Greenberg’s record.
But there he was, trying again to surpass it, in the same place he stood the last time he attempted the feat, but a lifetime removed. Now, a war-weary veteran, he did not swing for the fences. Now he wanted only to experience dirt beneath his cleats and a bat in his hand. He wanted to feel like he hadn’t felt in years—like a ballplayer. His approach was easy, his expectations minimal.
In the eighth inning, Greenberg shot a fastball from left-hander Charlie Gassaway 375 feet into the left-field bleachers. The number, 250, was finally his, solid proof he was home.
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