The Magazine

The Original Hammering Hank

Greenberg at 100: the greatest slugger time has forgotten.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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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.” 

The Original Hammering Hank

Photo Credit: Corbis

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.

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