Hank Greenberg, the greatest first baseman ever to play for the Detroit Tigers, died this week (Sept. 4) in 1986, and although, statistically, he was among baseball’s greatest hitters ever, statistics are only part of his story.
Not that his statistics aren’t impressive. He led the American League in home runs and RBIs four times, and hit 331 career home runs. He was twice voted the American League’s MVP (1935 – 1940), and he led the Tigers to four American League pennants and two World Series titles (1935 – 1945). But what makes those statistics really impressive is that he amassed them in the equivalent of just nine seasons.
That is because, in 1941, Greenberg was drafted into the Army Air Corps, causing him to miss the 1941 season (he played 19 games), and although he was honorably discharged in December of 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor later that month, Greenberg voluntarily reenlisted, serving with the 20th Bomber Command in the Pacific. It wasn’t until July of 1945 that he returned to baseball, meaning that, all total, he missed nearly four-and-a-half seasons — seasons in which he would have been in his prime.
The other aspect of the Hank Greenberg story is his Jewish heritage. He was the first Jew inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, yet his career coincided with a pervasive and vicious anti-Semitism. Indeed, one of the nation’s most prominent anti-Semites, the “Radio Priest,” Father Charles Coughlin, was based in Detroit, and his radio “sermons” were often non-stop anti-Semitic vitriol. That vitriol often greeted Greenberg on the diamond, where he was called a “Jew bastard, “kike S.O.B.” and worse by both opposing players and fans. Greenberg would politely reply by hitting baseballs out of their parks and driving in runs. From 1937 to 1940 Greenberg averaged 148 RBIs and 43 home runs a season.
His Jewish faith was severely tested in 1934, when, in the heat of a pennant race, he opted not to play in a game against the Yankees because it was Yom Kippur. That decision earned him the wrath of both Tigers fans and the Detroit press, but it made him a hero in the Jewish community and paved the way for later Jewish athletes, including Sandy Koufax, to refuse to play on Yom Kippur.
Speaking of racial prejudice, Greenberg’s last year in baseball, 1947, coincided with Jackie Robinson’s rookie year, and many believe that only Robinson suffered more abuse on and off the field than did Greenberg. Which may be why Greenberg went out of his way to encourage Robinson, once telling him, “Don’t let them get to you. You’re doing fine. Just keep it up.”
Robinson never forgot that advice.