When he died in 1986 at the age of 75, Hank Greenberg was widely acknowledged to have been the greatest Jewish player in the history of baseball. His achievements were beyond merely great—they were monumental. He played in the major leagues from 1933 to 1947, but lost four and a half seasons to military service in World War II. And yet, as the baseball historian Robert W. Creamer has noted, “in that brief period he established himself as one of the best of all power hitters, possibly the best after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.”
In a major league career of only nine and a half years, Greenberg hit 331 home runs. He led the American League in home runs and runs batted in four times. He twice won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award, in 1935 and 1940. Greenberg captured the attention of sports fans throughout the nation in 1938, when he challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record, finishing with 58 home runs, two short of Ruth’s 60. That same season Greenberg set a major league mark of his own by hitting two or more home runs in eleven games. In four different seasons, he had 96 or more extra-base hits, a record shared with Babe Ruth that no other player in the history of baseball has surpassed. He was baseball’s RBI king, and perhaps the greatest run producer in the annals of the game. He drove in 170 runs in 1935 and in 1937 a phenomenal 183, only one short of what is still the American League record, set by Lou Gehrig in 1931. From 1937 to 1940, Greenberg averaged 148 RBIs a year and 43 home runs. More than just the sum of his individual statistics, Greenberg led the Detroit Tigers to four American League pennants and two World Series titles over the course of his career.
His fame was about more than just baseball. From 1933 through 1947, Hank Greenberg was America’s best-known Jew, a household name whose celebrity and renown eclipsed that of Albert Einstein, George Gershwin, and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Amidst the growing anti-Semitism in the America of the 1930s, Greenberg refused to be intimidated by the hecklers taunting him at major league ballparks across the country, hurling epithets at the Detroit first baseman like “Jew bastard,” and “kike son of a bitch.” For American Jews during the 1930s, as Edward S. Shapiro put it, “Greenberg’s struggle against anti-Semitism was their struggle, and his victory over hatred and injustice was theirs also.” In 1956, he became the first Jewish player enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Today, as we approach the centenary of his birth, it is appropriate to remember the extraordinary life and legacy of Hank Greenberg, the greatest Jewish-American sports hero of all time.
The man known as the “Jewish Babe Ruth” was born in the Bronx on January 1, 1911, to Orthodox Jewish parents who had emigrated from Bucharest, Romania. His childhood dream was to play for the hometown team, in the famous Bronx ballpark “built” by his childhood hero Ruth—Yankee Stadium. And yet when the Bronx Bombers offered him a contract in 1929 Greenberg turned it down. As a first baseman, he felt that he would never have a chance to replace Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ great first baseman, and play on a regular basis. So, instead, he accepted an offer from the Tigers and after three years in the minor leagues began his major league career in Detroit in 1933.
His impact was almost immediate. During the 1934 season, Greenberg hit .339 and drove in 139 RBIs while leading the Tigers to the pennant. But for the many Jewish baseball fans who regarded him as a role model, his most significant contribution may have been the decision that earned him an iconic niche in American Jewish history. In the heat of the pennant race, with the Tigers leading the Yankees by four games, Greenberg’s club was scheduled to play the Boston Red Sox on September 10, which was when Rosh Hashanah fell that year, the Jewish New Year. Nine days later, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, the Tigers were to play the second-place Yankees in what was sure to be one of the decisive games of the pennant race. Greenberg was torn about whether or not to play, even though he was not a religious Jew. Baseball fans and rabbis alike debated whether Greenberg should be in synagogue on the Jewish High Holy Days, or in the Tigers’ lineup. To the disappointment of some Jews, Greenberg succumbed to the pressure of the Tigers’ management, who demanded that Greenberg not abandon his teammates in the heat of the pennant race, and played on Rosh Hashanah. His two home runs beat the Red Sox 2-1.
For Yom Kippur, however, Greenberg stood his ground, ignoring anti-Semitic comments from the Detroit press and Tigers fans alike, and chose not to play against the Yankees, spending the Day of Atonement at Detroit’s Shaarey Zedek synagogue. In his autobiography, Greenberg would recall the pride that he had felt when entering the synagogue that day. Much to his surprise, upon his arrival, the assembled congregants had paused in their prayer to give him a standing ovation. Indeed Greenberg was widely applauded throughout the Jewish community for his decision, a choice that established a precedent for Jewish baseball players like Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green, who decades later followed Greenberg’s example and refused to play on Yom Kippur. In his absence, the Tigers lost to the Yankees 5-2.
Greenberg’s decision to affirm Jewish religious tradition was a defining moment for Jewish baseball fans throughout America, who came to revere him as a standard bearer. His conviction, much admired throughout the baseball world, was immortalized in “Speaking of Greenberg,” the poem by Edgar Guest:
Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day worldwide over to the Jew—
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent this 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!”
But Greenberg’s Jewishness was not universally honored. In the World Series that same year, the Tigers faced the St. Louis Cardinals, led by star pitcher Dizzy Dean, whose heckling of Greenberg (with anti-Semitic taunts like “Moses” and “kike”) was incessant throughout the seven games series, won by the Cardinals. Nor was that the end of it. In the 1935 World Series, Greenberg’s Chicago Cubs opponents were so vicious in their anti-Semitic invective that, as the New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow wrote, the home plate umpire had to “go to the Cubs dugout, and warn some players that he’d throw them out of the game if they didn’t stop.”
Greenberg’s last year in baseball was Jackie Robinson’s rookie year, 1947. Playing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Greenberg was one of the few opposing players to welcome and encourage Robinson. He later would say that Robinson had confronted much greater prejudice than he had: “You want to talk about real bigotry,” Greenberg would recall after his playing days were over, “that was what Jackie Robinson had to contend with in 1947. Teammates asking to be traded rather than play with him, opponents threatening to strike rather than play against him. . . . I never encountered anything like that.” In a game between the Dodgers and the Pirates early in the 1947 season, during which Robinson had ignored the racial insults that some of the Pirates players had yelled at him, Robinson and Greenberg, the Pirates’ first baseman, accidentally collided in a close play at first base. While they stood side by side, as Greenberg would later recount, he had encouraged Robinson, whom he “couldn’t help but admire,” saying to him: “Don’t let them get to you. You’re doing fine. Keep it up.” Birdie Tebbetts, a teammate of Greenberg’s for several years during the 1930s and 1940s, said that other than Jackie Robinson, Greenberg was the most abused player in baseball history.
It was perhaps hardest on Greenberg in 1938, when he challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record of 60. Even with the approaching war in Europe on the horizon, baseball fans were riveted on Greenberg as he came closer to reaching Ruth’s magic number. Throughout the season, Greenberg understood that “being Jewish did carry with it a special responsibility. After all,” as he would recall in his autobiography, “I was representing a couple of million Jews among a hundred million gentiles, and I was always in the spotlight. . . . I felt a responsibility. I was there every day, and if I had a bad day, every son of a bitch was calling me names so that I had to make good. . . . It was 1938 and . . . as time went by, I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.”
In the two games following British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s much-publicized September 15 meeting with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, Greenberg hit three more home runs, raising his season total to 53. Greenberg’s patriotic crusade was his personal response to anti-Semitism and the culture of appeasement that the slugger had come to detest.
There is little question that anti-Semitism played a part in Greenberg’s failure to break Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938. Statistics show that Greenberg walked in at least 20 percent of his plate appearances in September 1938, suggesting that many of those were intentional passes to prevent him from breaking Ruth’s record. Over the years, sports writers and baseball fans alike have remained convinced that Greenberg’s pursuit of Ruth’s record was undermined by pitchers who refused to give Greenberg a decent pitch to hit. For the many anti-Semites in the stands, the press box, and between the foul lines, it was inconceivable, and unseemly, that a Jew should break the Babe’s record.
The 1941 season was historic, with Joe DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games and Ted Williams batting over .400, while Hank Greenberg went to war. The Tigers first baseman was coming off a banner 1940 campaign, having led the American League with 41 home runs and 150 RBIs, while batting .340, and was once again voted the American League MVP. He hoped to match or better those numbers in ’41, but only 19 games into the new season, Greenberg’s baseball career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps, the first American League player to be drafted into the military in World War II. Although he missed most of the historic 1941 baseball season and found his salary cut from $55,000 a year to $21 a month, Greenberg was never bitter or resentful. Quite the contrary: As Greenberg told a reporter for Life magazine, “It wasn’t as much of a sacrifice as it appeared. . . . I never asked for a deferment. I made up my mind to go when I was called. My country comes first.” Three months later, Congress decided that men over 28 years old were exempt from military service and, on December 5, 1941, Greenberg, age 30, was honorably discharged.
Two days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting Greenberg to reenlist, the first major league player to do so. Greenberg was widely admired for his patriotism, especially since at age 30 he was exempt from military service. North Carolina senator Joshua Bailey echoed the sentiments of baseball fans throughout the country when, in praising Greenberg’s military service, he remarked, “He’s a bigger hero than when he was knocking home runs.” Greenberg could have had a stateside job as an athletic instructor, but he volunteered for combat, serving in the China-Burma-India theater with the Twentieth Bomber command, the first B-29 bomber unit to go overseas. Now he would “fight the Nazis with a B-29 instead of his bat.”
For American Jews, as for many baseball fans generally, Greenberg took on almost epic proportions: He served in the military for 45 months, longer than any other major league player, missing almost four complete seasons, and half of another, before returning to the Detroit lineup on July 1, 1945. Never one to disappoint his fans—and the stands were filled to capacity that day to welcome him back—Greenberg hit a home run. Even more dramatically, he hit a ninth-inning grand slam to win the pennant on the last day of the season, and finished his shortened 78-game season with a .311 batting average, before leading the Tigers to victory over the Cubs in the 1945 World Series.
In 1947, following a long salary dispute with the Tigers, Greenberg had planned to retire when the Tigers waivered his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The owners of the Pirates, in a successful effort to persuade Greenberg to play one more season before retirement, offered him a salary of $100,000. Thus, in the last year of his playing career, Greenberg became the first player in baseball history to receive a $100,000 salary.
Over the years, baseball analysts and fans alike have wondered what sort of statistics Greenberg might have compiled had he not sacrificed four and a half seasons, at the peak of his career, to serve his country. Had he matched his extraordinary accomplishments of the 1937-1940 seasons, when he averaged 43 home runs a year, he would have concluded his career with well over 500 home runs and more than 1,800 RBIs. In so doing, he would have become only the fourth baseball player of the pre-1950s era to join the 500 home-run club, a sure ticket to baseball immortality, a measure of fame that Hank Greenberg, the “Jewish Babe Ruth” and one of the greatest power hitters in the history of the game, richly deserved.
Greenberg’s statistics are even more remarkable in that they were compiled in a playing career of only 1,394 games. Greenberg’s contribution to baseball, and his enduring legacy, however, cannot be measured in terms of statistics alone. Equally if not more significant is that Greenberg set an inspiring example for generations of American Jews through his work ethic, his respect for Jewish religious tradition, and his ability to transcend the religious prejudice and anti-Semitic taunts of opposing players in pursuit of baseball excellence.
Hank Greenberg should be remembered above all as baseball’s greatest patriot. That the American League’s reigning home run leader and MVP in 1940 put service to his country above his love for baseball, sacrificing most of the historic 1941 baseball season to serve in the military, and then became the first major league player to enlist after Pearl Harbor, remains the most compelling part of his enduring legacy. In sacrificing much of his baseball career to serve his country, he displayed true heroism. What Donald Kagan said of Joe DiMaggio can just as easily be said of Hank Greenberg: “A baseball legend,” he was “also an American hero, . . . an American who quietly went to serve his country when called to war, . . . who represented the virtues and ideals of his era.”
David G. Dalin, a rabbi and a professor at Ave Maria University in Florida, is the coauthor (with Jonathan D. Sarna) of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience.