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Picture this. We are in the early 1940’s, and Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor. The US Army was ready to retaliate, and the troops were forming. A certain brigade leader gave the following speech to his men, “Listen here. I don’t want no Cohen’s or Bloomberg’s or Goldman’s in my troop. Do you understand?” A tall, handsome 6’4” man stepped out from the back and asked politely, “What about Greenberg’s?” The leader said reluctantly, “Greenberg’s are fine.” I had heard this story from a Hebrew School teacher of mine, and I will always remember it. Mr. Greenberg went onto to become a first lieutenant of the United States Air Force and lead a B-29 bomber squadron in the China-Burma-India Theater and came home a War Hero.
But this certain Greenberg was far more then a WWII hero. He is one of my biggest baseball heroes, as well as a Jewish role model to me. The slugging first base man for the Detroit Tigers during the 1930’s and 1940’s is truly one of the most underrated ballplayers in sports history. With a career slugging percentage of over .600 and a batting average of over .310, Hank Greenberg was easily one of the best sluggers of all time. His legacy still stands today, and his numbers were far from shabby. On paper, however, one can see Greenberg hit only 331 homeruns in his career. But one does not see that he only played 9 full seasons—he missed three full seasons and most of two others for his service in the Military during WWII as well as one more with a broken wrist. It is often estimated he would have belted well over 500 homeruns had he played his full career.
Born of two Orthodox Jewish Romanian parents, Hank grew to love sports. He was a standout basketball player in high school, but his one true passion was baseball. When he told his parents he wanted to further his love for baseball into a future profession rather then becoming a doctor or lawyer, his parents were ashamed. Disappointed and even angered his friends and family saw Hank as “a bum who only wanted to play baseball”, but they soon realized their local prodigy had lots of baseball talent.
The New York Giants wanted a Jewish baseball ball player to satisfy the heavily Jewish population in New York, and they found Hank Greenberg. Although Hank wanted the job, the Giants management wasn’t satisfied with Hank and his clumsy mannerisms and said he would never make the major leagues! A New York Yankee scout was also present at a game where the young Hank hit three homeruns in a game. He offered Hank $1,000 down and $500 each year afterwards. They liked what they saw in him; however Hank was first basemen. Despite being offered a contract from the Bronx Bombers, Greenberg rejected the deal because the Yanks had first basemen by the name of Lou Gehrig, who was known to rarely miss games. Greenberg wanted a shot to prove his talent in the majors. He decided to attend college at NYU, instead. Later, a Washington Senator scout saw Hank and offered him $10,000 right away and $800 a month if he played now... He rejected that deal as well, because education was very important to him.
The Detroit Tigers and Hank found an instant match (along with $9,000; $3,000 immediately and the rest after he graduated from NYU; however he was so eager to play he only spent one year at NYU). Signing a whopping $8,000 deal, 19 year old Hank became the youngest player in the MLB in 1930. He spent three years in the minors until he returned to the majors in 1933.
A story I once heard about his minor league experience is that he was in the locker room when one of his team mates was walking around him in circles and staring at him. Although awkward, Greenberg realized it was obvious that he had never seen a Jewish person before. After letting it continue for a little while, Hank remarked “See anything interesting?” To his team mate’s surprise, he did not. (A common stereotype of Jewish people, which I still think is absurd, is that Jewish people have horns, because of a mistranslation in the bible. When Moses was coming off of Mount Sinai, he was depicted with beams after talking with God. But that was translated as “horns” so it was assumed all Jews had horns. To this day, I still think “Jews with Horns” would be an AMAZING band name…) the teammate said slowly “You’re just like me.”
The 1930s, as I’d imagine, were not an easy time for people of the Jewish faith with Hitler coming to power. But Greenberg realized it was his duty for the American Jew to become a role model for them, despite him not being that religious. At first, he thought of himself as a great ballplayer only, but he soon transformed that to being a great Jewish ballplayer. Greenberg got plenty of support from the Jewish faith from not only those in Detroit, but all over America. However, being that the world was still very Anti-Semitic; Greenberg didn’t get hugs and kisses from all. In fact, he got lots of hate and racial remarks. But the one that bugs me the most is that of the closing of the 1938 season. Greenberg finished the year with 58 homeruns, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record. Although unspoken, it was often thought that people didn’t want a “Jew” to break this record…so they walked him at every opportunity possible. That 58 homerun season, though, was the most homeruns for a right handed hitter in any season, and that record stood until 61 years later, in 2001, when both McGwire and Sosa broke it.
In 1933, the real beginning of his playing career began. Greenberg was known for his RBI’s; he would often tell his teammates, “Just get on base and I’ll get you home.” His rookie season was no shy of that, either, driving in 87 runs. In 1934, “Hammerin’ Hank” had a .600 slugging percentage, for the third best in the league, ahead of Babe Ruth! He lead his Tigers to their first World Series in 25 years, however he guided the way for Koufax and Green in later years as he did not play on Yom Kippur. Thus sparked the famous poem, which concluded by saying, “We will miss him in the infield, and we will miss him at the bat. But he’s true to his religion, and I honour him for that.”
The 1935 season showed an MVP award to Hank as he drove in 170 RBI’s and belted 36 homeruns. However, the 1936 season wasn’t as golden as he broke his wrist 12 games in. He bounced back in 1937 with 183 RBI’s, second highest in history. 1938 was even bigger, as he knocked 58 homeruns out of the park as well as 11 multi-homerun games. However, instead of attending the All Star games that year, he paid a pitcher $15 to pitch to him all day. In the previous year, he spent all night on a train ride only to sit on the bench all game.
And as he came closer and closer, he belted his 58 th homerun with five games left. This reminds me of one of my favorite stories of all time. Greenberg’s very Jewish mother offered her son 61 baseball shaped gefilte fish when Hank had 58 homeruns with 5 games left. Greenberg, as I mentioned earlier, was continuously walked to close out the season and he did not break the record. Hank later remarked “It’s just as well. I couldn’t have eaten all of those gefilte fishes.” In 1940, he worked his behind off to move to the outfield to make room for Rudy York, new first basemen. In 1941, making $55,000, Hank joined the air forces. He returned to baseball in 1945, where he led the Tigers to another World Series.
In 1947, Hank was traded to the Pirates where he played his final year. He was offered $100,000 to play, but he would always be remembered as a Tiger. He retired after that season, and then began working for the front office of the Cleveland Indians. He became the General Manager and partial owner. In 1956, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he became the first Jewish player inducted. He later worked for the White Sox. He then settled away from baseball and moved to Beverly Hills, where he managed his personal investments. In 1980, he started writing a book about his life; however he died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 75... His book was published three years later.
Hank Greenberg was one of the classiest acts around. He treated fans like he was one of them, often talking to them and treating them as friends. There are many stories of how kind and charitable Hank Greenberg was to his fans, and despite the fact that I was born over twenty years after he passed, Hank will always be viewed as my hero.