Two important eras in baseball history crossed paths 75 years ago when the Brooklyn Dodgers began a three-game series in May at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Jackie Robinson had been with the Dodgers since opening day, breaking baseball’s color barrier. Hank Greenberg had been with the Pirates since the season began, winding down a career as the game’s first Jewish superstar, which meant he became the game’s first superstar to experience anti-Semitism.
“Hank became the face – and muscle – of Judaism in America,” wrote John Rosengren in his biography, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. “He single-handedly changed the way Gentiles viewed Jews.”
Robinson was not only the game’s first African-American player, he also became its first black superstar, and while he faced the worst of the country’s racism, he no doubt changed some views about black Americans.
In his first Dodgers-Pirates game, Robinson bunted for a hit, and collided with Greenberg at first base and Robinson stumbled and fell. “Black men were not supposed to crash into white men, especially aging superstars,” wrote Rosengren. “Many critics of the Robinson experiment awaited just such a moment to touch off a race riot.”
But nothing happened. Greenberg said to Robinson, “Listen, I know it’s plenty tough. You’re a good ballplayer however, and you’ll do all right. Just stay in there and fight back. Always keep your head up.”
Seventeen years before, Hank Greenberg, then 19, noticed one of his minor-league teammates on the baseball field staring at him.
“What are you looking at?” he asked JoJo White, a Georgia native.
“Nothing,” said White. “I’ve never seen a Jew before. I’m just looking.”
“See anything interesting?” asked Greenberg.
“I don’t understand it,” White said. “You look just like anybody else.”
At the time of White’s discovery, Greenberg was playing for the Raleigh Capitals, a class C team in the Piedmont League. Raised in a predominately Jewish enclave in the Bronx, Greenberg began hearing taunts about his faith for the first time.
He was discovering – as many Jews did – that no matter what they accomplished, or what type of person they would become, they would always be thought of as Jewish first and foremost.
In high school games or amateur contests, the big and brawny teenager hit towering homeruns. The Yankees were eager to sign him, but when Greenberg, as a guest of the team at Yankee Stadium, saw Lou Gehrig on the field he thought “no way I’m replacing him”.
Also pursuing him were the Detroit Tigers, but Greenberg’s parents wanted him to attend college, so he thought he’d play baseball at Princeton and then sign a pro contract. Princeton had offered Greenberg a scholarship but rescinded it when the administration noticed the percentage of Jewish students at the University was too high.
Then the Tigers made an offer he couldn’t refuse: they’d pay him $9,000 – $6,000 to sign and $3,000 to be used for his college education. When Greenberg told his father how much money Detroit offered, the parent realized baseball could be a good way to earn a living.
In 1930, Greenberg arrived at Tampa for the Tigers’ spring training. A sympathetic pitcher for the Boston Braves told him he’d throw a fat pitch in his first at bat, and Greenberg smashed it for a homerun. But that was the highlight of the spring. Greenberg was sent to a farm team in Hartford, Connecticut but did poorly, and was shipped to a lower level team in Raleigh, North Carolina. There, Greenberg did well and Frank Navin, the Tigers owner, had him called up to Detroit for the last few weeks of the season – possibly to draw fans to the ballpark to see their next superstar player.
(Original Caption) The fans and sports scribes all agree that Joe DiMaggio's one-handed stab of Hank Greenberg's 450 foot drive in the 9th was one of the greatest bits of single handed ``robbery`` to be applauded at the Yankee Stadium in some time. Hank Greenberg (L) was robbed of a triple at least. Hank, in case you don't know, is the Detroit hitting ace who is second home run hitter in the big leagues.
But manager Bucky Harris had no plans for the rookie other than for him to sit on the bench. On September 14, with the Tigers trailing the Yankees 10-1, Harris had Greenberg pinch hit for the pitcher in the bottom of the eighth. He popped up weakly to the second baseman Tony Lazzeri. It was the only action he saw during his first weeks as a major leaguer.
He spent the next two seasons in the minors and made the Tigers roster for opening day in 1933. He put up decent numbers as a rookie, batting .301 with 12 homeruns and 85 RBI. Two years later he won the MVP Award, leading the league in home runs, RBI and batting .329. He would win a second MVP in 1940, when he led the Tigers to the AL pennant.
Several times in his career, Greenberg’s Jewishness was a part of several controversies.
The first was when the Tigers were fighting for the pennant in 1934, and a crucial game was scheduled on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest of days in the Jewish faith. Some fans wanted him to play, even though Jewish custom had people refrain from working on that day. People wrote letters to the editor criticizing Greenberg for putting himself ahead of his team, even though Greenberg was a big reason the Tigers were in a position to win a pennant in the first place. Greenberg agonized over whether to play or not, even going to a synagogue the morning of the game hoping it would give him an answer. He went to the stadium and sat in the locker room in his street clothes. A few minutes before the game, he changed into his uniform. He belted two home runs giving the Tigers a 2-1 victory.
Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, Greenberg did not play, instead attending High Holiday services. An article by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan reported: “Even though the Tigers had the pennant all but wrapped up, this decision was symbolic, coming at a time when Jews were suffering economically in the Great Depression and when there was open anti-Semitism.”
The Tigers made the World Series in 1934 but lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1935, Greenberg had another great year, leading the Tigers to a consecutive pennant and the team won the World Series, defeating the Chicago Cubs.
Baseball Magazine features a photograph of baseball player Hank Greenberg (1911 - 1986), formerly of the Detroit Tigers, in his military uniform for his World War II service, May 1942. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
In 1938, Greenberg made a run at Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season. Again, baseball fans saw him not as a player seeking to break a cherished record, but a “Jewish” player, which some fans didn’t want to see outdo the Babe. Fans – even fans in Detroit – yelled slurs at him, and Greenberg received death threats in the mail. He finished with 58 homeruns.
The Selective Service Act of September 1940 enrolled every man between 21 and 35, requiring them to spend time in the Army. Greenberg enrolled in a small town in New York State. In a “confidential” questionnaire, Greenberg asked for his service to be delayed until 1942 so he would lose only a portion of his 1941 salary, and Greenberg was the highest paid player in the game, earning $50,000 a year.
Somehow, the confidential questionnaire became public, and people saw Greenberg as trying to avoid his service to save money – which fit into the stereotype of Jews being obsessed with wealth. Greenberg told people he never asked for a deferment, and he was willing to serve. His situation became a big story, and Greenberg stopped talking to the media. He had another great season in 1940, again helping the Tigers to a pennant and another World Series victory against the Cubs.
He did a year of service in the Army, leaving the Tigers in May, 1941, and, under a change in the law, was able to return to baseball in September. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Greenberg volunteered for the Army, and in total served 50 months, so in effect he missed four seasons of salary, while most other baseball stars missed only three.
He returned to the Tigers in July, 1945. In 79 games, he hit .311 with 13 homeruns and 60 RBIs, and helped the Tigers win the pennant and another World Series against the Cubs.
(Original Caption) 6/18/1944-China- Captain Henry ``Hank`` Greenburg, former major league home run king, now in China doing special service work for the U.S. Army, chats with a couple of Chinese laborers. All of them seem to enjoy the conversation, even though neither understands the other's language. Maybe Captain Hank, with the current diamond situation in mind, is doing a little scouting of ivory on the side.
The last misunderstanding occurred after the 1946 season, when Greenberg led the American League in homeruns and RBIs. A photo appeared in newspapers showing Greenberg holding up a Yankees jersey, which gave the impression he wanted to play for the New York team. Tigers owner Walter Briggs, Sr. was furious, and sold Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates. (The photo was three years old and was taken before an exhibition game and he was holding the jersey because it was the only one big enough to fit him.)
Greenberg batted only .249, but hit 25 homeruns and drove in 74 RBIs for the Bucs. The biggest contribution he made to the Pirates was coaching budding slugger Ralph Kiner, who was big but unpolished. Kiner, under Greenberg’s tutelage, increased his homerun output from 23 to 51. It was the first of six consecutive seasons in which he led the National League in homers.
The end of Greenberg’s career 75 years ago mirrored its beginning. Just as he came to bat only once in the three weeks he was first with the Tigers in September, 1930, Greenberg didn’t play the final two weeks of his season with Pittsburgh. On September 26, 1947, he went 1 for 3 in his last game. In the sixth inning, he singled to drive in a run that gave the Pirates a 3-2; they lost the game 7-3. In his last at-bat, he flew out to left open the bottom of the ninth.
But Greenberg was not done with baseball. He became general manager for the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox, showing a good eye for talent, which included signing more black players than most organizations.
(Original Caption) Hank Greenberg, of the Detroit Tigers, is shown ready to swing the bat.
In 1956, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his ninth try. Why did it take so long for the BWAA to induct him? Was it because he was Jewish? Was it because they were angry at him when he stopped talking to them for a while? Was it a quirk of numbers and personalities? After all, Joe DiMaggio didn’t make it until his third try.
“Greenberg’s election timeline had a lot more to do with the Hall of Fame being a far more nascent institution than we think of it today,” said Scott Bush, CEO of the Society for American Baseball Research. “The first election wasn’t until 1936, and the first induction – 25 players – until 1939. Additionally, there were no inductions in 1940 or 1941 and only Rogers Hornsby was inducted in 1942! So when Greenberg retired in 1947, there was still a tremendous backlog of worthy Hall of Famers to be voted in that had retired before he did.”
Five years after Greenberg joined Cooperstown, Jackie Robinson was also inducted into the Hall, again, a crossover point for two eras in baseball – and American – history.