"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
*Henry Benjamin "Hank" Greenberg (January 1, 1911, New York, New York – September 4, 1986), nicknamed "Hammerin' Hank," was an American professional baseball player in the 1930s and 1940s.
A first baseman primarily for the Detroit Tigers, Greenberg was one of the premier power hitters of his generation. He hit 58 home runs in 1938, the most in one season by any player between 1927, when Babe Ruth set a record of 60, and 1961 when Roger Maris surpassed it. He was a five-time All-Star, was twice named the American League's Most Valuable Player, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Greenberg was also one of the first Jewish superstars in American professional sports. He garnered national attention in 1934 when he refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, even though the Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race.
Minor League career
Greenberg played minor league baseball for three years.
Greenberg played 17 games in 1930 for Hartford, then played at Raleigh, North Carolina where he hit .314 with 19 home runs.
In 1931, he played at Evansville in the Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League (.318, 15 homers, 85 RBIs).
In 1932, at Beaumont in the Texas League, he hit 39 homers with 131 RBIs, won the MVP award, and led Beaumont to the Texas League title.
During the season, one of his teammates (Jo-Jo White) walked slowly around Greenberg, staring at him. Greenberg asked him what he was looking at. White said he was just looking, as he'd never seen a Jew before. "The way he said it," noted Greenberg, "he might as well have said, 'I've never seen a giraffe before.'" I let him keep looking for a while, and then I said, 'See anything interesting?'" Looking for horns and finding none, White said, "You're just like everyone else."
Early Major League career
In 7 of the 9 years in which he was active, he was one of the dominant players in the game. He has the 8th highest slugging percentage lifetime of any ballplayer in major league history, at .605, ahead of such sluggers as Mark McGwire and Joe DiMaggio.
In 1930 he was the youngest player in the majors when he first broke in, at 19.
In 1933, he rejoined the Tigers and hit .301 while driving in 87 runs. At the same time, he was third in the league in strikeouts (78).
In 1934, his second major-league season, he hit .339 and helped the Tigers reach their first World Series in 25 years. He led the league in doubles, with 63. He was 3rd in the AL in slugging percentage (.600) -- behind Jimmy Foxx and Lou Gehrig, but ahead of Babe Ruth, and in RBIs (139).
Late in the 1934 season, he announced that he would not play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Fans grumbled, "Rosh Hashanah comes every year but the Tigers haven't won the pennant since 1909." Greenberg did considerable soul-searching, and discussed the matter with his rabbi; finally he relented and agreed to play on Rosh Hashanah, but stuck with his decision not to play on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Of the latter decision, Detroit Free Press columnist and poet Edgar A. Guest expressed the general opinion in a poem titled "Speaking of Greenberg," in which he used the Irish (and thus Catholic) names Murphy and Mulroney. The poem ends with the lines "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." The complete text of the poem is at the end of Greenberg's biography page at the website of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1935 Greenberg led the league in RBIs (170) and total bases (389), tied Foxx for the AL title in home runs (36), was 2nd in the league in doubles (46), triples (16), and slugging percentage (.628), and was 3rd in the league in runs scored (121). He also led the Tigers to their first World Series title. (However, he broke his wrist in the second game.) He was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player. He set a record (still standing) of 103 rbi's at the All-Star break - but was not selected to the AL All-Star Game roster.
In 1937 Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team. On Sept. 19, 1937, he hit the first-ever homer into the center field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. He led the AL by driving in 183 runs (3rd all-time, behind Hack Wilson in 1930 and Lou Gehrig in 1931), while batting .337 with 200 hits. He was 2nd the league in home runs (40), doubles (49), total bases (397), slugging percentage (.668), and walks (102). Still, Greenberg came in only 3rd in the vote for MVP.
A prodigious home run hitter, Greenberg narrowly missed breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record in 1938, when he was again voted to the All-Star Team and hit 58 home runs, leading the league for the second time. After having been passed over for the All-Star team in 1935 and being left on the bench for the 1937 game, Greenberg refused to participate in the 1938 contest. In 1938 he homered in four consecutive at-bats over two games. He matched what was then the home run record for homers in a season by a right-handed batter.
He also led the league in runs scored (144) and at-bats per home run (9.6), tied for the AL lead in walks (119), was 2nd in RBI (146), slugging percentage (.683), and total bases (380), and was also 3rd in OBP (.438). Still, Greenberg came in only 3rd in the vote for MVP.
In 1939 Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team for the third year in a row. He was 2nd in the league in home runs (33), 3rd in the AL in doubles (42) and slugging percentage (.622), while leading the league in strikeouts (95).
After moving to the outfield in 1940, Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team for the 4th year in a row. He led the league in home runs (41; for the third time in 6 years), RBIs (150), doubles (50), total bases (384), and slugging percentage (.670; 44 points ahead of Joe DiMaggio). He was second in the league behind Ted Williams in runs scored (129) and OBP (.433), all while batting .340 (5th best in the AL). He led the Tigers to a pennant, and won his 2nd American League MVP award, becoming at the time the first player ever to win the MVP award at two different positions.
World War II service
The Detroit draft board initially classified Greenberg as 4F for "flat feet." Rumors that he had bribed the board, and concern that he would be likened to Jack Dempsey, who received negative publicity for failure to serve in World War I, led Greenberg to be reexamined, and he was found fit to serve.
Although drafted in 1940, he was honorably discharged after the United States Congress released men aged 28 years and older from service, being released on December 5, 1941, two days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Greenberg re-enlisted and volunteered for service in the United States Army Air Forces. He graduated from Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a first lieutenant. He eventually served overseas in the Republic of China-Burma-India theater, scouting locations for B-29 bases.
Return to baseball
Greenberg remained in uniform until the summer of 1945. In Greenberg's first game back after being discharged, he homered on July 1, 1945. That year, he set the major league record with 11 multi-homer games. Sammy Sosa tied Greenberg's mark in 1998. 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 on the final game of the season.
In 1946 he returned to peak form, leading the league in home runs (44) and RBIs (127), both for the 4th time. He was 2nd in slugging percentage (.604) and total bases (316), behind Ted Williams.
In 1947, Greenberg and the Tigers had a lengthy salary dispute. When Greenberg decided to retire rather than play for less, Detroit sold his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates. To persuade him not to retire, Pittsburgh made Greenberg the first baseball player to earn over $80,000 in a season as pure salary (though the exact amount is a matter of some dispute). Team co-owner Bing Crosby recorded a song, "Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye" with Groucho Marx and Greenberg, to celebrate Greenberg's arrival. The Pirates also reduced the size of Forbes Field's cavernous left field, renaming the section "Greenberg's Gardens," to accommodate Greenberg's pull-hitting style. Greenberg played first base for the Pirates for 1947, and was one of the few opposing players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson to the majors.
That year he tied for the league lead in walks, with 104. He had a .408 on base percentage, and was also 8th in the league in home runs and 10th in slugging percentage. Greenberg became the first major league player to hit 25 or more home runs in a season in each league (Johnny Mize became the second, in 1950). Nevertheless, he retired as a player to take a front-office post with the Cleveland Indians.
As a fielder, the 6'4" Greenberg was awkward and unsure of himself early in his career, but he mastered his first-base position through countless hours of practice. Over the course of his career, he had a higher than average fielding percentage and range at first base. When asked to move to left field in 1940 to make room for Rudy York, he worked tirelessly to master that position as well, and reduced his errors in the outfield from 15 in 1940 to 0 in 1945.
Greenberg felt that runs batted in were more important than home runs. He would tell his teammates, "just get on base," or "just get the runner to third," and he would do the rest.
Starring as a first baseman and outfielder with the Detroit Tigers (1930, 1933-46), and briefly with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1947), he played only 9 full seasons. He missed 3 full seasons and most of 2 others to military service during World War II, and missed most of another season with a broken wrist.
It is often estimated that Greenberg, had he played in another era uninterrupted by war, would have amassed between 500 and 600 home runs and 1,800 to 2,000 RBI. As it is, his totals of 331 home runs and 1,276 RBI are amazing for a 1,394-game career. He also hit for average, batting .313.
Hank Greenberg's number 5 was retired by the Detroit Tigers in 1983
- American League Most Valuable Player, 1935 and 1940.
- American League All-Star team, 1937-1940.
- First Jewish player elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1956. He garnered 85% of the votes. Joe Cronin was also elected that year.
- In 1983, the Tigers celebrated "Greenberg-Gehringer Day" at Tiger Stadium, honoring Greenberg with the retirement of his uniform number 5 and former teammate Charlie Gehringer with the retirement of his number 2. Both players were on hand for the ceremony.
- In 1999, despite injuries and wartime service that essentially limited him to half a career, he ranked Number 37 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.
- Member of the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1996).
- Member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (1979).
- Member of the Jewish American Hall of Fame (1991).
* - Bio from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia