In the days of baseball before the implementation of the amateur draft, it was not uncommon for talented young players to be pursued by a number of different teams. Former Cleveland Indians pitcher and broadcaster Herb Score, for example, remembers that of the sixteen major league teams active in 1952, only the Washington Senators did not actively attempt to sign him, and only then because they realized that the financial cost would be too great (Pluto 20). Likewise, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax was seriously scouted by at least four major league teams (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, and Boston) before he eventually signed with the Dodgers in late 1954.
Sometimes, however, good ballplayers fell through the cracks. Hank Greenberg, a 6’4”, 200 pound first baseman from New York, could probably be considered one of them. Although he was awkward as a teenager, Greenberg quickly displayed the work ethic that was to be his trademark for years to come. Countless hours of batting and fielding practice helped him make the transformation from that awkward teenager into the player who would eventually win two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, lead his team to four World Series appearances (with two wins), and challenge two of baseball's most unbeatable records.
In 1929, Greenberg was not an MVP, or a team leader, or a top slugger. He was just a teenage kid looking for a shot at the major leagues. It was not as easy as it might sound. The son of Jewish Romanian immigrants was scouted by the New York Giants, Washington Senators, New York Yankees, and Detroit Tigers, although only the latter three teams felt he had enough potential to offer a contract. It seemed that there was a problem with almost every team in pursuit. The Giants, led by legendary manager John McGraw, had looked over the youngster, and made the questionable judgment that he had no chance at making the major leagues. The Senators already had a solid first baseman, Joe Judge, who would be very difficult to displace. The Yankees had more than a solid first baseman—Lou Gehrig, a future Hall of Famer, was absolutely entrenched at the position, and would remain so for another decade; only the incurable disease that came to bear his name would be able to remove the Iron Horse from the lineup. In the end, the only team left standing was the Tigers, with whom Greenberg had eventually developed a mutual interest. He signed with Detroit for $9,000 (about $1,000 less than the Yankees and Senators were offering), and the professional baseball career of Hank Greenberg began. Though his contract originally called for him to earn his college degree before reporting to the team (per the wishes of his father), Greenberg found himself falling victim to baseball fever by the end of his first year at New York University. He left school in 1930 to join the Tigers’ minor league system, eventually making his major league debut against the Yankees at the end of the season. Still only nineteen years old at that point, he was sent back to the minor leagues for two more seasons, before returning to the big club for good in 1933.
After a good, but not outstanding, rookie season in 1933, Hank Greenberg became one of the most feared sluggers in the game of baseball. From 1934 through 1940, he played six full seasons at two different positions (left field and first base). In three of those years, he hit forty homeruns, leading the league three times (he would add a fourth homerun crown in 1946); never failed to surpass 100 runs batted in (RBI) or a .300 batting average; and made four American League All-Star teams (with a fifth appearance in 1945). To put it simply, he was one of the major leagues’ best first basemen, in an era of great first basemen.
The success did not come without some setbacks. In 1934, Greenberg led the Tigers to the World Series, the first time since 1909 the team had reached the Fall Classic. The seven game series against the St. Louis Cardinals was a disappointment, however, as the Deans (Hall of Famer Dizzy and his brother Paul) combined for all four Redbird wins. Although Hank had a .321 batting average in 28 at-bats, he was unable to solve the enigma of the Dean brothers, contributing little when they were on the mound.
As disappointing as the ending to 1934 had been, it was fairly obvious from the start that 1935 would not follow the same pattern. A quick glimpse at the statistics reveals that the success of 1934 had been only a prelude to superstardom. He led the league in homeruns (36) and RBI (170), while appearing in the top five in numerous other statistical categories and winning his first MVP award. A better than average fielder and fearsome presence at the plate, Greenberg seemed poised to enjoy his (and the Tigers’) first World Series championship. His season ended, however, when he suffered a serious wrist injury in the second game against the Cubs, and had to watch from the sidelines as Detroit beat Chicago without him, four games to three.
The Tigers’ top slugger would recover from the injury enough to start the 1936 season on fire, hitting .348 with 16 RBI in the first twelve games. It looked like the start of another outstanding year, until he was involved in a collision at first base, re-injuring his wrist and prematurely ending his season.
There were fears that Greenberg's career was over, that he would either never play again, or at least never reach the same high level as the previous seasons. Neither prediction came true. Greenberg did play again, and he did dominate the league again. 1937 and 1938 were not only two of the best seasons of his entire career; they also rank high on the list of greatest seasons in the history of the game.
In 1937, Greenberg challenged a record that had been set six years earlier by Lou Gehrig. While “Hammerin’ Hank” was still working his way up through the minor leagues, “Larrupin’ Lou” had driven in an American League record 184 runs, a mark bettered by only one other man in major league history, before or since . Entering the final game of the 1937 season, Greenberg had 182 RBI, with a young pitcher on the mound. It appeared that he would have ample opportunity to remove Gehrig from the record book, especially after driving in run number 183 in the first inning. Karma was not on Hank’s side, however; the youngster settled down and pitched well; the game ended 1-0. And 75 years later, the American League record still belongs to Gehrig.
The following year, with the Tigers spiraling out of the pennant race by mid season, Greenberg began to hit homeruns at a record pace. It had been only eleven years since Babe Ruth had become the first man to reach the magical number of 60; unbeknownst to those watching during that season, it would be another twenty-three seasons until another hitter would follow suit. In the summer of 1938, however, Hank Greenberg had a chance. He kept hitting homerun after homerun after homerun—with the Tigers hopelessly behind in the pennant race, he did not have to concentrate so much on driving in runs and hitting for a high average. He could swing for the fences. And he did, reaching the 58 homerun mark with five games left in the season. As in the year before, the native New Yorker had a chance to steal one of baseball’s biggest records from a New York Yankee. And, as in the year before, he could not quite seal the deal, going without a homerun in those final five games. It should be noted, however, that the 58 homeruns Greenberg hit in 1938 tied the record for right-handed hitters, set by Jimmie Foxx in 1932. That mark stood for sixty years, when both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa surpassed it (McGwire had also hit 58 the previous year).
Greenberg followed his record challenging years with two more successful seasons. In 1940 he again won the MVP award, this time as a left fielder, the first player in history to win the award while playing two different positions. Though the Tigers lost in the World Series that year to the Reds, Hank’s numbers were again at or near the top of the league in most categories. It was a magnificent season. In retrospect, however, it was probably the last that he would play and enjoy with the same vigor that had marked his approach to the game since childhood.
The Later Years
The first baseball superstar drafted into the military during World War II was Hank Greenberg in 1941. He played only nineteen games that season before being inducted into the Army in May. After three months in the service, Congress ruled that men over twenty eight were ineligible for the draft (Greenberg 141). Because Greenberg was thirty years old, he was discharged on December 5 of that year, having risen to the rank of sergeant. Two days later, Japanese pilots attacked Pearl Harbor; Greenberg turned right back around and voluntarily reenlisted. Over the ensuing three and a half years, he played a minimum of baseball, later explaining that he was “just satisfied to be alive” after some of his experiences (Greenberg 144).
After being discharged for good in June 1945, Greenberg returned to the Tigers for 78 games, or almost exactly half the season. On the one hand, it was a difficult return—his legs, for instance, were four years older, and just did not have the same life in them as they had when he had left the game in 1941. On the other hand, he could still swing a bat better than almost anyone, and in that case, it was like he had never left. In his first game back, he hit a late inning homerun, and then, on the last day of the season, his grand slam clinched another pennant for the Tigers, the fourth in the Greenberg era. And just to make sure everyone realized things were back to normal, Greenberg led his team to its second world championship ever, ten years after the first. Ironically, the opponent was once again the Chicago Cubs.
After another extraordinary season in 1946 (44 homeruns, 127 RBI, .277 batting average), Greenberg was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $10,000, the waiver price at the time. His first instinct was retirement, an idea he was talked out of by Pirates owner John Galbreath, who made a number of concessions to his newest star (including the first $100,000 contract in baseball history). He played one year on a terrible Pirates team, lending advice and support to a young slugger named Ralph Kiner along the way, before finally retiring as an active player after the 1947 season. Almost immediately, he found work as an executive for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, helping build the great Cleveland teams of the 1950s and the Chicago World Series team of 1959. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, a testament to his brief but remarkable career.
Hank Greenberg left baseball in the early 1960s, soon after realizing that, for various reasons, he would never establish a firm foothold with the owners. He used his natural good sense to become an exceptional businessman, and his remarkable work ethic to become a top notch tennis player. His death from cancer at the age of 75 came soon after he had begun work on an autobiography with sportswriter Ira Berkow. Berkow finished the book, weaving his own commentary with extensive notes left behind by Greenberg.
Impact on the Game
The statistics show that Hank Greenberg had an undeniable impact on the history of baseball. 331 homeruns, 1276 RBI (an average of .92 per game, a record he shares with Gehrig and Sam Crawford), a .313 batting average, a .605 slugging percentage (fifth all time), and a .412 on base percentage illustrate that for the better part of ten major league seasons, he was one of the greatest offensive forces in baseball. On top of that, he was the consummate team player: changing positions in mid career for the good of the team, holding RBI in the highest regard, rooming with and befriending Kiner in order to help the younger player fulfill his vast potential. Later, as general manager of the Cleveland Indians, he was respected for his honest approach to player-executive relations.
It was Greenberg who sent a young Rocky Colavito to the minors with the promise that he would be recalled in three weeks. When Colavito reminded his boss of the oath, Greenberg explained the situation to the team’s manager, Al Lopez, and Colavito was brought back to Cleveland. Said the Rock, “If Al Lopez or Hank Greenberg told you something, you could believe it (Pluto 25).”
Greenberg’s impact, however, cannot be measured solely by statistics, or even by his intangible contributions to the teams he played on and worked for. Equally important is the fact that for his entire baseball career, he set an example for Jews everywhere through his work ethic, respect for Jewish tradition, and response to severe anti-Semitism. The son of Jewish parents, Greenberg was not the first Jew to see action in the major leagues; he WAS, however, the first to truly establish himself as a superstar. In doing so, he accomplished two things: one, he provided a positive example of how a Jew should act in uncertain times, and two, he opened himself up to racially motivated abuse from both fans and opponents.
The High Holidays
In the waning months of the 1934 season, Hank Greenberg found himself faced with a dilemma. His Tigers were in position to win their first pennant since 1909, leading the Yankees by four games in early September. Unfortunately, at a time of year when every win is important and every loss seems to count twice, the Tigers were confronted with the potential loss of their cleanup hitter. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was to fall on September 10, the same day Detroit was scheduled to play the Boston Red Sox . Jewish tradition dictated that Greenberg must not join his team on the field, but instead spend the day abstaining from work. The young slugger was torn—should he sit, and honor the beliefs with which he had been raised, or should he play, and honor his commitment to the team? It was not an easy decision, especially for a twenty three year old in only his second full season of major league baseball. Rabbis were consulted; the issue was discussed; finally, three different decisions were announced. The first allowed Greenberg to play, no strings attached, because Rosh Hashanah was a happy day, and the Talmud spoke of children playing in the streets of ancient Rome . The second also allowed him to play, but under much stricter conditions—only kosher refreshments should be sold, no Orthodox Jews could buy tickets to the game, and no smoking would be allowed (Simons 251). Finally, the third said that there could be no “official” dispensation, because it was not in any rabbi’s power to make such a judgment—in essence, the choice was Greenberg’s to make. It was mentioned, however, that he might have a case based on the fact that his participation would not personally benefit him, but would help the team and the community (Simons 250). Whether unaware of all his options or just blissfully ignorant of the stricter opinions, Greenberg chose to play on Rosh Hashanah, citing the decision based on Talmudic evidence (Greenberg 56). The game against the Red Sox ultimately demonstrated the big first baseman’s value to the team, as his two homeruns single handedly beat Boston 2-1.
Rosh Hashanah was not the only major religious holiday that momentarily got in the way of the Tigers’ march to the 1934 World Series while simultaneously adding to the legend of Hank Greenberg. Nine days after the win over Boston, Detroit played the second place New York Yankees. Despite the fact that the pennant was not officially decided, Greenberg was not in the lineup. He was not injured, or suspended, or being benched for poor play. He had simply come up against Yom Kippur, the one day he could never hope to overcome.
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the calendar, when all the sins of the past year are “wiped away” through fasting and prayer. Devout Jews would never think of working on such a day. The 1934 Greenberg was not particularly devout; for his entire life, in fact, he would harbor deep doubts and questions about all organized religion. He was, however, still influenced by his father, who “put his foot down” (Greenberg 57). So he sat.
New York beat Detroit on Yom Kippur in 1934, 5-2, but it did not really matter—while the race was not over, the Tigers had a sizable lead. Their ticket to the Fall Classic was a virtual lock, despite the loss. But most people do not remember those “insignificant” details. They remember that Greenberg did not play, because his religious beliefs outweighed his baseball, and therefore secular, obligations . Looking back on his career years later, Greenberg recalled the feelings he felt when entering the synagogue that day; upon his arrival, the assembled congregants paused in their prayer to give him a standing ovation. Despite his embarrassment, he realized then what he meant as a Jewish hero.
Greenberg would never have reached the level of stardom he did without the added aura of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Jane Leavy, in a recent book on Jewish superstar Sandy Koufax, closed a chapter by commenting, “In the Talmud, it is written that some attain eternal life with a single act. On Yom Kippur, 5726, a baseball immortal became a Jewish icon (Leavy 195).” Although Leavy made her point in reference to Koufax, this quote also applies to Greenberg’s decision in 1934. During his playing career, the big slugger never gave much thought to that act, or to the transition between mere immortality and cultural iconism. He never realized that he was a hero—a baseball Moses, if you will, a hallmark for his people to follow. It was not until years later, when grown men began to start conversations by telling him how much his decisions had meant to them and how much he had impacted their lives, that he began to realize the influence he had held in the 1930s (Ritter 330). “It’s a strange thing,” Greenberg once said. “When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer (Ritter 330).” More than thirty years after he last played a major league game, Greenberg understood the phenomenon that Leavy would later articulate.
Not everyone viewed Greenberg’s Jewish heritage positively. For every person who treated him as a hero, there was someone trying to knock him down with an anti-Semitic comment. Birdie Tebbetts, a teammate of Greenberg’s for several years in the 1930s and 1940s, suggested that the big slugger was the most abused player in baseball history outside of Jackie Robinson. As Greenberg himself remembered, “As soon as you struck out, you weren’t only a bum, you were a Jewish bum (Sandomir 38).” Most players encountered at least some of this discrimination, especially in an era where “bench jockeying” was the preferred method of gaining a psychological edge over an opponent. Some managers actually filled a roster spot with a player or players whose sole purpose was to taunt the opposing team. Such antics were frustrating and infuriating, but essentially harmless. When that was the case, Greenberg was generally able to use the words as a driving force, pushing him to do better, every game, every at-bat, every pitch.
There were times, however, when the words and actions stopped being harmless, and the big slugger had no recourse but to fight back. Baseball veterans such as Tebbetts, Hall of Famer Ted Williams, and New York Yankees Executive Vice President Arthur Richman all proudly recall the time Greenberg took on the entire White Sox team by himself, challenging those who yelled epithets: “If you got a gut in your body, you’ll stand up.” As Williams recalled, almost gleefully, in an interview several years ago, “You know who stood up? Nobody? (Ziegel 1)”
It is inevitable that whenever a new Jewish star decides to honor his heritage and sit out an important game in September or October, comparisons are drawn to Greenberg, the first baseball player to noticeably do so. Koufax in 1965 and Shawn Green in 2001 are the two most famous examples of players who followed in the footsteps of the Detroit first baseman. But it is important to understand that Greenberg’s situation was unique. The 1930s were a tough time in history for Jews everywhere. There was no nation of Israel, no place to serve as a spiritual home. Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany—Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), viewed by some as the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust, occurred even as Greenberg was making history of his own in America (“Kristallnacht” 1). And in America, right there in Detroit, there were Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford, two anti-Semitic personalities who held positions of power. For a group of people with no true homeland, fear for their families in Europe, and very vocal enemies in the New World, what could have been better than seeing one of their own playing America’s pastime, and playing it better than anyone else? Greenberg may have only been one man, but he was prominent, and that prominence meant that when he did well (which was often) it was a blow to everyone who preached anti-Semitic ideas. He may not have realized just how closely his enemies lay in those glory years—he makes no mention of Ford or Coughlin in his autobiography—but Greenberg knew something about anti-Semitism, especially in the form portrayed by Adolf Hitler. Over time, he came to view the German dictator almost as an opponent on the field, saying, “…I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a homerun, I was hitting one against Hitler (Greenberg 111).” The feeling is simplistic, but powerful. In baseball, you hit homeruns, the opposition suffers. To Greenberg, hitting a homerun was his way of crippling Hitler’s regime, by showing people all over the world that there was nothing Jews could not accomplish, regardless of what anyone said to the contrary.
Hank Greenberg was not a man without flaws. He was divorced once; he was sometimes looked upon as difficult by the Detroit Tigers’ ownership (usually when the subject of contracts came up); his tremendous work ethic bordered on obsession. But his place in history, both as a baseball player and as a person, is secure, and with good reason. I did not understand the breadth of Greenberg’s impact on the game of baseball and the history of America until research for this paper began. That is unfortunate, because he truly should be looked upon as a great American hero. It takes real courage to do what he did, in the era that he did it—sitting out a single game might have cost him his job, or he might not have had allies against the anti-Semitism, or the press might not have been so understanding of his decisions. Any number of bad things could have happened. But in the end, Hank Greenberg showed that strength of character is as important as physical strength, and the ability to stand up for your beliefs is as important as the ability take the field.