Monday, April 25, 2011

Hank Greenberg: More Than A Baseball Player

Great Legends of Sport

The Pied Piper enjoyed people enjoying themselves. He was colorblind and race-blind and religion-blind.
Hank Greenberg

When you're playing, awards don't seem like much. Then you get older and all of it becomes more precious. It is nice to be remembered.

Hank Greenberg

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.
Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenbeg, number 5 with the Detroit Tigers, at the 1937 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. on July 7th. It was the first of five All-Star games he would play in his career. His number 5 was retired by the Tigers in 1983.
Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing, 1937.
Source: Wikipedia

Hank Greenberg was a Jewish athlete who played professional baseball for the Detroit Tigers in the nineteen thirties and forties, when the world, including the United States, was undergoing another spasm of anti-Semitism feelings. He played in a city that was home to the automotive industry and Henry Ford, who used his newspaper to fuel anti-Jewish sentiment and cause discord and dissension in America.

No doubt, such racial miasma made life as a baseball player more difficult for Greenberg, who handled himself for the most part with equanimity and let his athletic achievements, especially his bat, do the talking on the sports field. For secular Jews, he was considered "the baseball Moses."

Such thoughts are driven home in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a 1998 documentary by Aviva Kempner, which includes archival footage of Greenberg himself. His importance to American Jews as a figure who stood for freedom and human dignity stands out.
"Baseball was our way of showing that we were as American as anyone else," said Alan Dershowitz, noted civil-liberties lawyer and Harvard professor of law. You can view a short clip here.

In thirteen seasons, chiefly with the Tigers, Greenberg, who stood six-foot-four and weighed two hundred and ten pounds, belted 331 homers, had 1,276 RBIs and achieved a respectable lifetime batting average of .313. The first baseman (and later leftfielder) played on five All-Star games: in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940 and 1945. He was on two World Series-winning teams: in 1935 and 1945; and was named American League MVP in 1935 and 1940.
In 1938, he threatened to best Babe Ruth's home run record, ending with 58 home runs to Ruth's 60. (His full stats can be found here.)

His playing
career lasted between 1930 and 1947, it curtailed during his prime when Greenberg lost almost four years, between 1941 and 1945, to serve in the U.S. Army Air Force in southeast Asia during the Second World War. He served forty-five months, the longest of any professional baseball player. He left the military with the rank of captain.

But even that distinction would never amount to much for certain ugly elements in society, who know only how to hate and thrive on it, using nationalism and religious affiliation in its most basest form:

Greenberg’s athletic rise was in lockstep (certainly not in goosestep) with that of Hitler. Anti-Semitism was surging during one of the United States’ periodic fits of nativism, and Detroit was its hot centre, with Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, existing mainly to attack Jews, and Rev. Charles Coughlin spewing his venom over the radio.

Thus, Greenberg, a huge and powerful man who withstood with dignity (mostly; early on he got into a few scraps) the constant taunting of fans (“Christ-killer!”) and opposing teams, came to be seen as a symbol of Jewish power and resistance – and his famous decision not to play on Yom Kippur [in 1934] during the heat of a pennant race as a powerful symbol of tribal loyalty.

It's true that Greenberg was not overtly religious, not by any means. But he very much a cultural Jew, a product of his times. His reasons centred on family loyalty and loyalty to his people. The opposition he received, as always a waste of energy, in many ways emboldened Greenberg. "I found that it was a spur to make me do better," Greenberg said in a 1983 interview.

He was not one to back away from any fight, and was deeply loyal, if not to a tradition that he didn't follow, then to a people with which he closely and intimately identified.
For those who look at loyalty as a quaint relic from the past, it's clear that such individuals have none. His upbringing in New York City gives us clues and insights to Hank Greenberg the man.

The 1937 All-Star Game in Washington, D.C.: "A million dollar base-ball flesh is represented in these sluggers of the two All- Star Teams which met in the 1937 game at Griffith Stadium today. (Left to right): Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charley Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg."
Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing, 1937 July 7
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

His Upbringing in New York City

Hank Greenberg was born Hyman Greenberg to David and Sarah Greenberg (nee Schwartz) in Greenwich Village, New York City, on January 1, 1911, the second-youngest of four children. His parents, Jewish immigrants originally from Romania, owned a successful cloth-shrinking plant in New York. 
Initially, the family lived in tenements on Barrow Street and then Perry Street in the Lower East Side.  Hank had two brothers, Benjamin, four years older, and Joesph, five years younger, who also played baseball, and a sister, Lillian, two years older.

His family moved to the Bronx, to Crotona Park, a Jewish neighborhood, when he was six. The family kept a kosher home and Hank was sent to Hebrew school. Afterward, he attended James Monroe High School, and even though he had flat feet, Greenberg excelled at basketball and baseball. Flat feet prevented Greenberg from running fast, but he worked hard to overcome such deficiency. His preference was baseball and first base. His decision to become a baseball player was perplexing and initially a disappointing one to his immigrant parents, who would have preferred him to go to university and become a professional, such a doctor, lawyer or teacher.

Although he was recruited by the New York Yankees
in 1929, Greenberg turned them down, The Yankees had a formidable first baseman in Lou Gehrig, a future Hall of Famer. Greenberg attended New York University for a year, and then signed with the Detroit Tigers for $9,000 in 1930. He made his major league debut with the Tigers on September 14, 1930. Greenberg had one plate appearance.

He then was sent to the minor leagues for the next three years to gain some experience. He rejoined the Tigers for the 1933 season after proving himself in the Texas League, where he hit  39 homers with 131 RBIs and was the league MVP.

In 1933, his first full major league season, he hit .301 with 87 RBIs. In 1934, his second major-league season, he hit .339 and helped the Tigers reach their first World Series in 25 years, where they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

He compiled impressive stats. By 1940, he had hit his stride,
voted to the All-Star team for the fourth year in a row. He led the league in a number of areas, including home runs (41), RBIs (150), total bases (384), and slugging percentage (.670). He was a dominant player. He led the Tigers to a pennant and won the league's MVP award for the second time. Then came the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941,and the U.S. entry into the War.

Greenberg was the first major-league player to enlist in the army. During the Second World War, Greenberg  served overseas with the
U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF)  for forty-five months. He commanded a B-29 bomber squadron in the China-Burma-India theater. Greenberg remained in uniform until the summer of 1945, where he left with the rank of captain.

In Greenberg's first game back after being discharged, on July 1, he homered. Without the benefit of spring training, he returned to the Tigers, was again voted to the All-Star Team, and helped lead them to a come-from-behind American League pennant, clinching it with a grand slam home run in the dark—no lights in Sportsman's Park in St. Louis-ninth inning of the final game of the season.
The Tigers went on to win the World Series in seven games agianst the Chicago Cubs.

In 1947, Greenberg and the Tigers were embroiled in lengthy salary dispute. When Greenberg decided to retire rather than play for less, Detroit sold his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh made Greenberg the first baseball player to earn over $80,000. In his last year with the Pirates, in 1947, Greenberg helped another trail-blazer, Jackie Robinson, adjust to breaking baseball's colour barrier:

Jackie Robinson gave credit to Hank Greenberg for an incident that happened during the early part of his career as the first black player in Major League Baseball. In his retirement article that appeared in "Look" magazine, Robinson recalled his meeting with Greenberg. Robinson was standing on first base while Greenberg was in the field for the Pirates.

Robinson wrote, "He (Greenberg) suddenly turned to me and said, 'A lot of people are pulling for you to make good. Don't ever forget it.' I never did."

Post-Player Years

Such is the mark of the man. Greenberg played his last game on
September 18, 1947. Following his career as a player, Greenberg stayed in baseball. In 1948, Bill Veeck hired Greenberg to serve as the director of the Cleveland Indians' farm system. In 1950, he became the Indians' general manager where under his leadership the team that ended the Yankees' streak of pennants in 1954. In 1959, he became part owner and vice-president of the Chicago White Sox. He retired from baseball completely in 1963 and became a successful investment banker.

He was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1956, the first Jewish player to gain such distinction, garnering 85 percent of the vote. The Sporting News also ranked Greenberg, in 1999,
number 37 on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all time.

Greenberg married twice. He married Caral Lasker Gimbel, heiress to the New York department store family on February 18, 1946, in a civil ceremony in Brunswick, Georgia, away from the glare of publicity. It was his first marriage, her second. He was thirty-five; she was thirty. They had three children—Glenn, Stephen and Alva—before divorcing in 1959. In 1966, Greenberg married Mary Jo Tarola, a minor Hollywood actress who appeared on-screen as Linda Douglas, and remained with her until his death. They had no children.

His influence among the Jewish community when he was playing was immense. So much so that Alan Dershowitz, the well-known legal mind, once said: "I thought he'd become the first Jewish president."

Hyman Hank Greenberg died of cancer in Beverly Hills, California, on September 4, 1986. Greenberg was seventy-five.  His remains were entombed at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery, in Culver City, California.


  1. I frequently walk past the tenement on Barrow Street with a plaque saying that the building was Hank Greenberg's first home. If it weren't for that, I would hardly be aware of him. I find professional sports the only thing in the world that is neither interesting nor important.

  2. It's interesting that the city placed a plaque on the tenement. As for the importance of sports, for many minorities, including Jews and Blacks, sports was a ticket out of poverty.


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