You probably know that the 1920s and 1930s marked a huge public spike in antisemitism in America. Between 1900 and 1924, with hostility toward Jews growing around the world, more than two million Jewish immigrants poured into America. The backlash was forceful. Immigration was cut way back. The Ku Klux Klan had a second life after many dormant years. Henry Ford published numerous anti-semitic screeds. Father Charles Coughlin blamed Jewish people for purposely causing the Depression on his popular and hateful weekly radio show. Charles Lindbergh — sometimes called the most famous man in America — was among many well-liked American figures to speak out against what he said was a subversive Jewish influence. Around this time, in a national poll, more than half of America agreed with the statement that “Jews are different and should be restricted.”
It was in this world that Hank Greenberg played baseball.
He was a tall and somewhat awkward man — John McGraw personally scouted him and decided he was simply too clumsy to play in the big leagues. McGraw underestimated Greenberg’s ferocious determination. His high school basketball coach Irwin Dickstein said, “Hank never played the games. He worked them.” Greenberg’s dedication was fierce and unyielding. He hit until his hands bled. He played games of pepper for eight-hours a day to improve his hand-eye coordination and nimbleness. He obsessively exercised, squeezing a rubber ball to strengthen his forearms, jumping rope to strengthen his flat feet, working again and again on what a track coach might call “explosion” — that is, getting off to fast starts out of the batters box. He molded himself into a ballplayer.
His family did not understand the baseball thing. His parents had emigrated separately from Romania, and they raised Henry (who was mostly known as “Hymie” as a child”) in an orthodox house where Yiddish was the main language spoken. His father, David, worked his way up from a worker in a textile factory up to owner of the factory, and even though he had a mild interest in baseball as a fan (he liked McGraw’s New York Giants) he did not see baseball as a viable career path. Hank himself expected eventually to go into his father’s business.
There were a few Jewish baseball players before Greenberg made it to the Majors in 1933 and no stars. In truth, there had never been an all-encompassing American Jewish sports star at all before him. There were some famous Jewish boxers — Benny Leonard and Battling Levinsky were two of the more prominent — but across the country boxing was viewed as corrupt and ethnic. Boxers were not often seen as heroes. Jewish and African American players dominated the early years of pro basketball, but the sport was barely a blip on the American scene. The overwhelming American sport was baseball, and Jews had almost no role in the game. The only time anyone seemed to talk about Jews and baseball was when referring to the gangster Arnold Rothstein’s role in fixing the 1919 World Series.
Greenberg hit .300 his rookie year but without much impact. He was still awkward, an ungainly fielder, and he hit just 12 homers. The Tigers were mediocre as usual. Greenberg came on the scene the next year when he had an astonishing 96 extra base hits including a league-leading 63 doubles. He became a national figure because the Detroit Tigers, for the first time in more than 20 years, had an actual pennant contender. The Tigers’ sudden prominence led to Greenberg’s religion twice becoming front page news.
1. On Sept. 10 that year, with the Tigers holding on to a four-game lead over the Yankees, Greenberg very publicly was trying to decide whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He had promised his parents he would not play, but there was immense pressure. The Tigers needed him. According to John Rosengren’s book on Greenberg, rabbis were consulted in the papers, teammates and Tigers management pleaded with him. He decided, almost at the very last instant, to play.
In the seventh inning, with Detroit trailing Boston 1-0 and Red Sox pitcher Gordon Rhodes overwhelming Tigers hitters, Greenberg stepped in and hit a game-tying home run. In the bottom of the ninth, with the score still tied 1-1, Greenberg came up again and smashed a massive home run that one Detroit writer would say soared like a Bobby Jones drive. Greenberg was mobbed as he ran around the bases. Detroit fans happily shouted “Happy New Year!”
The moment was covered by a fascinated and somewhat overwrought national press. A man named Bud Shaver wrote this for the Detroit Times: “The traditional tenacity of the world’s oldest and most beleaguered people today had played its part in a pennant race … They were propelled by a force of desperation and pride of a young Jew who turned his back on the ancient ways of his race and creed to help his teammates.”
2. On Sept. 19, Greenberg did not play on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The situation was different — the day is considered much holier in the Jewish faith. And, being honest, t didn’t hurt that the Tigers had a 7 1/2 game lead on the Yankees with 11 games to play. Still, there was much written about this decision as well, the most famous of these being Edgar Guest’s poem “Speaking of Greenberg.” It ended like so:
Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day worldwide over to the Jew
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today.
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that.”
There have been numerous disagreements about Guest’s poem — whether it was entirely celebratory of Greenberg’s choice to sit out or slightly mocking. It’s also kind a lousy poem. But, no matter, it was reprinted everywhere and it cemented Greenberg’s fame. In the Henry Ford’s city and in a time when many people were speaking out against when they called the seditious influence of Jewish bankers worldwide and Jewish decision-makers in the FDR administration, Hank Greenberg became something new: An American Jewish sports star.
He was never entirely comfortable with his place as a Jewish hero. But he understood his responsibility. He dealt with intense scrutiny, constant name-calling, perpetual threats. And he hit. He always hit. In 1935, he won the MVP award after leading the league with 36 home runs and 170 RBIs. In 1937, he finished with 183 RBIs — one shy of Lou Gehrig’s American League record. He always regretted falling short on that record. He drove in six runs with two three-run homers on October 1 which gave him 181 RBIs and two games to play. But he went one for his last seven, with two RBIs.
In 1938, he chased Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers. He had 58 home runs with five games to play. Greenberg would always admit to tensing up those last five games. The pressure was overwhelming and it came at him from all sides. Jewish fans — who had begun calling him the Jewish Babe Ruth — desperately wanted him to break the record. The news around the world, particularly, of course, in Nazi Germany, was bleak and growing bleaker daily and news of Hank Greenberg seemed like a life raft. Of course, in this nervous American time, man could barely imagine a Jew breaking the most prestigious record in sports. Greenberg was overwhelmed. He hit no home runs in the final five games — only once came close, a long double in Cleveland off 19-year-old Bob Feller — and Greenberg finished the season with 58 homers.
One month later came the news of Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass — where Jewish business and synagogues were attacked in Germany and Austria (the smashed windows gave the attack its name) and tens of thousands were sent to concentration camps. This was when many historians would say the Holocaust began. There were two more years or relative baseball normalcy in America. In 1939, Greenberg hit .312/.420/.622. In 1940, he won his second MVP award by leading the league in doubles, homers, RBIs, slugging and total bases. And that would be his last full season in the big leagues until he was 35 years old.
Greenberg was the first big baseball star to be drafted — he was actually drafted several months BEFORE Pearl Harbor. There was some confusion about Greenberg’s reaction to the draft and whether or not he asked for a deferment. Greenberg always said he did not, but there were various reports in newspapers that he had. His military questionnaire, which was supposed to be confidential, was leaked. He was bombarded by reporters questions. He turned inward. When he showed up for his military physical, a photographer took his picture. “I should punch you in the nose,” Greenberg reportedly snarled. The doctor found that Greenberg had flat feet, which only heated the controversy and the hate mail. One newspaper editor reportedly circled Greenberg’s feet and scribbled $25,000 — Greenberg’s salary at the time.
He was ordered to to report on May 7, 1941 — one week before Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak began, long before Bob Feller, Ted Williams or DiMaggio would report. He would miss the next four and a half years for World War II.
Greenberg was not the same player after the war. His body was beat up. Nothing had ever come easily for him. He would have one more fantastic season — he led the American League in home runs and RBIs in 1946. Then, at the end of the season, he heard that on the radio that the Tigers had sold him to Pittsburgh. He was shocked. A few days earlier — on Greenberg’s 36th birthday no less — there was a story in The Sporting News that Greenberg would like to finish his career with the Yankees. More powerfully, there was a photograph of Greenberg holding up a Yankees uniform. Greenberg would always say he had not wanted to go to New York. And the photo was supposedly taken in 1943, before a War Bond game when it was the only uniform available.
None of these details mattered much to Tigers’ owner Walter Briggs, who did not get along with Greenberg anyway. He was outraged and sent Greenberg to Pittsburgh (technically, Greenberg was claimed on waivers by the Pirates but it was reported as a sale). Greenberg announced his retirement instead. He’d had enough.
The Pirates were frantic. The acquiring of Greenberg was the first bit of good news for the franchise in two decades. Ticket sales had jumped. Owner John Galbreath went to see Greenberg and pleaded with him. Well, he more than pleaded. He gave Greenberg the biggest and most luxurious contract in the history of the game up to that point. He made Greenberg the first $100,000 player in baseball history. He promised that Greenberg would not have a roommate on the road and could fly on road trips instead of taking the bus. Greenberg’s wife was given a race horse. It was madness. And Greenberg could not refuse.
He hit just .249 through pain his one year with Pittsburgh, though it was not a complete loss. Greenberg did lead the league with 104 walks. Attendance almost doubled even though the Pirates lost 92 games. And Greenberg reportedly played a major role in helping a 24-year-old Ralph Kiner, who hit 51 home runs and led the league in slugging. After that, he retired for good. He was 37 years old.
Greenberg would continue a life in baseball, eventually becoming the general manager of the Cleveland Indians. His personality did not fit the job. He fired manager and Cleveland hero Lou Boudreau because of philosophical differences, feuded some with Larry Doby and lost brilliant young shortstop Luis Aparicio over a few hundred dollars. Bill James has speculated — and I think he’s probably right — that Greenberg played as large a role as anybody in Cleveland’s decline as a baseball organization in the 1960s. He was briefly general manager of the Chicago White Sox and then became a successful investment banker.
Greenberg was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, his eighth time on the ballot. It’s hard to say what took so long. He remains one of only five players to finish a career with .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .600 slugging percentage (Ruth, Foxx, Williams and Gehrig are the others). Maybe the shortness of his career hurt him — even if it was mostly due to the war — and there was some thought that he was not a great all-around player, though through his usual hard work he did make make himself into an adequate first baseman and even a tolerable outfielder (in 1945, in 72 games, in the outfield he did not commit an error).
More than anything, he was a pioneer. Baseball has had a handful of players in its history who transcended games and inspired people to perhaps expand their minds and open their worlds. Greenberg sometimes lamented that he had to carry this extra burden as a Jewish player, but he did carry it. One story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Georgian Jo Jo White once inspected Greenberg carefully, looking for horns. What is unquestionably true was that Greenberg and White became roommates and friends. “You’re just like everyone else,” White said to Greenberg, somewhat in wonder.