Greenberg, Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin Greenberg
Henry Benjamin "Hank" Greenberg (1911–1986) was Major League baseball's first Jewish superstar. A power–hitting infielder–outfielder, he became known as "Hammerin' Hank" for his ability to slam doubles and drive balls out of the park. He was twice honored as Most Valuable Player and became the first player to be paid $100,000 a year. After he retired from the field, he became part owner and general manager of the Cleveland Indians and vice–president and general manager of the Chicago White Sox. In 1956, he was the first Jewish ballplayer to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame.
There is one undisputed fact in the career of Greenberg: He was Major League Baseball's first Jewish superstar. But there is a big "What if?" that hovers over his impressive career. Due to injuries and military service, he lost almost five full seasons of his prime athletic years. Still, he posted impressive career numbers: 1628 hits, 1276 runs batted in (RBIs), .313 batting average, 331 homers, 1051 runs scored, 379 doubles, and a .605 slugging percentage—all good enough to get elected to the Hall of Fame. It makes one wonder what he could have accomplished if his career spanned 15 years.
Greenberg was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on January 1, 1911, to Romanian Jewish immigrants David and Sarah (Schwartz) Greenberg. David Greenberg owned a small textile mill and Sarah Greenberg was a housewife. When Greenberg was six, his family moved to Crotona Park, a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. Because the area was predominantly Jewish, he was exposed to little anti–Semitism when he was growing up.
He had two brothers, Benjamin (four years older) and Joseph (five years younger) and a sister, Lillian (two years older). His family kept an Orthodox home and Hank was sent to a Hebrew school.
Greenberg attended P.S. 44 public school. By that time, he was six–foot three–inches tall and excelled at most sports, but baseball was his favorite. At James Monroe High School, he remained a sports standout and helped lead his basketball team to a title.
Greenberg's brothers and sisters all graduated from college and went on to become professional people. Greenberg's parents had similar aspirations for Hank, so they were disappointed, and somewhat embarrassed, when he expressed a desire to become a professional baseball player. In his neighborhood, he was regarded as a "bum" because of these athletic aspirations. Eventually, his parents accepted his ambitions.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Greenberg played semi–pro baseball for the Red Bank Towners in northern New Jersey and for the Bay Parkways in Brooklyn. His skills attracted the attention of baseball scouts, and he received a tryout with the New York Giants of the National League. Giants Manager John McGraw was keen on signing Greenberg, because he was always on the lookout for a potential Jewish star that would attract ticket–buyers from New York's large Jewish population. However, after watching Greenberg, McGraw felt that he was just too awkward. Greenberg then gained the attention of the New York Yankees, and even was offered a lucrative deal, but as Greenberg wanted to play first base, he knew he had little chance of winning the position from the Yankee's legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig.
Instead, the 19–year–old Greenberg accepted an offer to sign with the Detroit Tigers of the American League for $9,000. As part of the deal, Greenberg would attend New York University. But he dropped out in 1930, after only one semester, so that he could focus only on baseball, his true passion.
Led Tigers to League Titles
Greenberg spent the next three years in the Detroit minor league system, honing his batting and fielding skills. From 1930 to 1932, he played for teams in Hartford, Raleigh, and Evansville. In 1932, he began developing his reputation as a slugger, as he pounded out 39 home runs for Beaumont in the Texas League, helped lead the team to the league title, and was named most valuable player. In 1933, he was called up to the major leagues. In his first season with the Tigers, he played 117 games at first base and posted some impressive numbers: 33 doubles, 87 RBIs and a .301 batting average.
In 1934, his first full season in the majors, he showed that his previous numbers were no fluke. Playing in 153 games, he led the American League in doubles (63) while belting 26 home runs, driving 139 runs and boasting a .339 batting average. Even more, he helped Detroit win the American League pennant, although the Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. In the previous season, the Tigers had finished in fifth place. Greenberg batted .321 in the championship series but struck out nine times.
At this early point in his career, Greenberg demonstrated that he was not only one of the biggest players on the field, but he was also one of the strongest. His strength, manifested in his ability to hit hard line drives, earned him the nickname "Hammerin' Hank."
That season, in the midst of the pennant race, Greenberg faced a dilemma, due to his religion. That year, the Jewish holy day Rosh Hashanah fell on September 10, and the Tigers, who were leading the league by four games, were scheduled to meet the Boston Red Sox. The situation was cause for great debate among Detroit fans and Jewish leaders. One on hand, Greenberg's faith dictated that he should not play. On the other hand, fans and rabbis felt that Greenberg's accomplishments were helping to gain acceptance for Jews in America. Greenberg himself came up with what seemed a workable solution: He would play on Rosh Hashanah but, 10 days later, he would spend Yom Kippur in a synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah, Greenberg hit the two game–winning home runs in the 2–1 win over the Red Sox. On Yom Kippur, the Tigers lost. The outcomes seemed to underscore Greenberg's importance to his team.
One of the greatest factors in Greenberg's development as an all–star player was the installation of catcher Mickey Cochrane as player–manager of the Tigers in 1934. Cochrane had been one of the key players of legendary manager Connie Mack's great Philadelphia Athletics championship teams (1929–1932). Greenberg and Cochrane liked each other immediately and Cochrane made the tall slugger his full–time first baseman. (Previously, Greenberg has been switching from first to third base). Now, with the first–base position his own, Greenberg truly flourished both as a hitter and fielder.
Greenberg was part of an infield that was called the "Battalion of Death" because, collectively the players—which included Greenberg at first base, Charley Gehringer at second, Billy Rogell at shortstop, and Marv Owen at third—would drive in 462 runs and bat .327 with 48 home runs. Eventually, four players from the 1934 Tigers team would be elected the baseball's Hall of Fame, including Greenberg, Cochrane, Gehringer, and Goose Goslin.
The Tigers made it to the World Series once again in 1935 (against the Chicago Cubs), and this time won the championship. Greenberg sparked his team and led the league with 36 home runs and 170s RBIs. He was named baseball's most valuable player, the first time a Jewish player was so honored.
Season Cut Short by Injury
Unfortunately, Greenberg suffered a broken wrist in the second game of the World Series against the Chicago Cubs and was forced to watch the rest of the series from the dugout. The injury occurred when Cub pitcher Fabian Kowalik hit Greenberg's wrist with a pitch. Greenberg stayed in the game and even tried to score from first on a two–out single the same inning.
Still, the Tigers won the series, and in particularly dramatic fashion: In the bottom of the ninth inning, Goslin singled to drive in Cochrane for the winning run.
Greenberg's misfortune carried over into the next year. Twelve games into the 1936 season, Greenberg was off to a hot start with 16 RBI. But during a collision at first base with Washington Senator outfielder Jake Powell, he broke the same wrist, and he was forced to miss the rest of the season. The incident generated much speculation. Some observers suspected that Powell intentionally tried to injure Greenberg. Others predicted the injury meant that Greenberg's career was over. Not surprisingly, the Tigers did not make it to the World Series that year.
Talk of Greenberg's career demise proved way too premature, as he bounced back at full strength in 1937 when batted .337, hit 49 doubles, pounded out 40 home runs, drove in 183 runs, which was only one shy of Gehrig's RBI record.
Chased Ruth's Home Run Record
In 1938, Greenberg finished the season with 58 home runs, which were two short of Babe Ruth's record of 60. The chase to the record came down to an intense final week of the season. With only five games left, Greenberg was stalled at 58, and the eyes of the sports world were focused sharply on each of his dwindling at–bats. During that five–game span, many pitchers walked Greenberg instead of pitching straight at him. Some observers felt that the pitchers were denying a Jewish player the chance to break the beloved Babe's record. Still, Greenberg never voiced any complaints, suspicions, or frustrations. He just went out and did his job.
On the last day of the season, the Tigers were playing the Cleveland Indians in a doubleheader in Cleveland. In the first game, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller struck out a record 18 batters, including Greenberg, who had fanned twice. Amazingly enough, Feller still lost the game. In the second game, Greenberg doubled off the left–centerfield fence but never managed to drive the ball over the wall. As the second game reached the late innings, the late afternoon twilight began to darken the field, dimming Greenberg's hopes of breaking the record. In the Baseball Biography Project website, Ralph Berger recorded the following: Umpire George Moriarity allowed the game to proceed for as long as was reasonably possible, but eventually it just became too dark. He ruefully told Greenberg, "I'm sorry, Hank, this is as far as I can go." Greenberg reportedly replied, "That's all right, George, this is as far as I can go too."
Still, it was another outstanding year for Greenberg. In addition to the 58 home runs, he drove in 144 runs and batted .315. He did manage to tie Jimme Foxx's record for season home runs for a right–handed hitter, and he set the record for most multi–homer games in one season with eleven.
War Clouds Darkened Europe
Greenberg had another fine season in 1939—42 doubles, 33 home runs, 112 RBIs, .312 batting average—but his accomplishments were at times overshadowed by controversies and events at home and around the world.
That year, some observers raised questions about the legality of Greenberg's first baseman's glove. They said it was too large and had two many laces, which gave him an unfair advantages in catching a ball. The commissioner's office examined the glove and indicated that it was, indeed, illegal.
In addition, the Tiger's fortunes had fallen and, at the end of the 1939 season, the team fell into fifth place. Tiger management asked Greenberg if he would take a cut in pay and move to left field, so that they could bring the strong–hitting, poor–fielding Rudy York into the lineup by positioning him at first base. At first, Greenberg was loathe to make the switch, as he had worked hard at becoming a good first baseman. Now his team wanted him to learn a new position and, on top of that, take a salary cut.
Greenberg made a counter–proposal. He would learn the new position, but keep his current salary. More than that, he would receive a $10,000 bonus if the position switch worked out. The Tiger's agreed to his terms, and Greenberg would report to the next spring training trying to learn a new position.
But more important than all of those issues were the dark clouds forming over Europe. Hitler's armies were invading neighboring countries, while Germany's allies, Italy and Japan, were equally aggressive. As a Jew, Greenberg keenly understood that implications that the world events would have on him and on people of his faith.
Adapted to Left – field Switch
The move to left field did not hamper Greenberg's productivity. In 1940, he batted .340 (his second highest batting average so far), drove in 150 runs, slammed 50 doubles, and hit 41 home runs. Fifteen of those home runs came in September during the pennant stretch, when Greenberg led his team to yet another American League title. (In the process, he won the September Player of the Month Award). The title broke the New York Yankee's streak of four straight American League pennants. In addition, he proved quite capable in his new left–field position, even making several spectacular catches that robbed opponents of runs. Greenberg got his $10,000 bonus, and he was worth every penny.
In the World Series, the Tigers faced the Cincinnati Reds but lost in seven games. Greenberg had a strong series, batting .357 and driving in six runs, but the Reds' pitching—particularly by Bucky Walters and Paul Derringer—proved the deciding factor.
At the end of the season, Greenberg was again named the American League's Most Valuable Player, making him only one of three players to win that award at two different positions.
Enlisted During World War II
In the meantime, things in Europe were looking increasingly grim. Hitler had captured France, and now Britain was pretty much on its own against the powerful Nazi army. Greenberg kept a close eye on how events were shaping up, and he was especially sensitive of the raging anti–Semitism in Europe as well as in his own country, where he endured frequent hateful slurs.
In 1941, the United States instituted a draft, and Greenberg had a very low number in the draft lottery, which meant who would most likely be called for duty soon. He was frequently questioned by reporters about his status, and he reiterated his that he would never seek any kind of deferment. During spring training, he underwent an army physical examination and was declared unfit for military duty because of his flat feet. This gave rise to unsubstantiated rumors of bribes and preferential treatment. Greenberg responded by demanding a second physical. This time he passed his physical and was classified I–A (fit for service).
Greenberg was inducted on May 7, 1941, 19 games into the season. In his last game before reporting for duty, he hit two home runs. He received basic training at Fort Custer, Michigan and served through the summer and fall, rising to the rank of sergeant in the tank corps. On December 5, 1941, he received an early release and an honorable discharge because he was over 28 years old. (In August of that year, the U.S. Congress ruled that men over 28 years old need not serve).
Greenberg intended to return to the Tigers the next season. Only two days later, however, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war on the Axis powers. Greenberg immediately signed up as an officer candidate in the Air Corps, even though he had already been excused from serving. He was the first Major League ballplayer to enlist. Greenberg could have had an easy tour of duty, performing in a non–combative stateside role. However, he requested a transfer into a war zone. As a first Lieutenant, he was sent to serve in the China Burma–India Theater, where he had a distinguished record. He rose to the rank of captain and commanded a B–29 bomber squadron. He earned four battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.
Returned to Baseball
He returned to the Detroit Tigers midway through the 1945 season. He was now viewed as not only a great ballplayer, but a hero, too. Moreover, he was no longer thought of as a Jewish ballplayer.
Though he had not played baseball for nearly four–and–a–half years, he made it seem like he had never been gone when he homered in his first game back. His continuing value to his team was underscored by a grand slam he delivered on the final game of the season that beat the St. Louis Browns and won the American League pennant for his team.
In the World Series, the Tigers met Chicago and beat the Cubs in seven games. Greenberg batted .304, hit two home runs and drove in seven runs. But, by this time, Greenberg was 34 years old and was starting to feel his age.
Last Year with the Tigers
Before the 1946 season, Greenberg married Caral Lasker Gimbel, the Gimbel department store heiress. They eloped to avoid a big wedding, fearing that their respective families, who came from different segments of society, would not get along.
In the 1946 season, Greenberg's batting average slipped to .277, but he still posted impressive numbers including 29 doubles, a league–leading 44 home runs, and 127 RBIs. Still, it would be his last year with Detroit.
In 1947, he was put on the waivers list and bought by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League. Greenberg heard the news of the deal when he was driving in his car, listening to the radio. Several theories have been offered to try and explain this rather cavalier treatment of one of the greatest ballplayers of all times. However, the only one that comes close to making sense is that Greenberg had his eyes set on the general manager position with the Tigers, and the team did not feel he was qualified.
Greenberg decided to retire from baseball, but Pirates owner John Galbreath offered him an unheard–of, one–year contract for $100,000. When Greenberg accepted, he became the first player to reach that level of monetary compensation.
His Final Season
His first season with Pittsburgh would be his last in baseball. Physical ailments began to take their toll, and his batting average dropped to a career–low .249. His home run output dropped to 24, while he only drove in 74 runs.
But Greenberg demonstrated his value in less tangible ways. For one, he served as a mentor for future Hall–of–Famer Ralph Kiner. He even convinced the Pirate front office to have faith in the young slugger who, Greenberg believed, could turn into a consistent home–run hitter—which is exactly what happened. Greenberg even became Kiner's roommate on the road and helped the young player develop his confidence.
At the end of the 1947 season, Greenberg finally hung up his spikes. It was an impressive run. Besides his outstanding lifetime numbers, Greenberg played in four World Series with the Tigers (1934, 1935, 1940 and 1945) and on four American League All–Star Teams (1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940). He was voted the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1935 at first base and 1940 in left field, becoming the first player to win the award at two different positions. In 1956, he was elected in the Hall of Fame, the first Jewish player to be so honored.
Post – retirement Years
Even though Greenberg's playing days were over, he was not finished with baseball. Rather, in 1948, he became farm system director to Bill Veeck, then–owner of the Cleveland Indians. In 1950, Greenberg became general manager of the Indians and helped build the 1954 pennant–winning team that won a record 111 games. He was unable to buy stock in the Indians after the 1957 season and went to the Chicago White Sox with Veeck, where he became part owner and vice president and helped build the team that won the 1959 American League pennant, the White Sox's first in 40 years. In 1963, he retired from baseball for good to become an investment banker.
Though he and Caral Greenberg would later divorce, they had three children: sons Glenn and Steve and a daughter, Alva. In 1966, Greenberg remarried, to Mary Jo Tarola, a minor actress who appeared on–screen as Linda Douglas.
In 1983 his uniform number (5) was retired by the Detroit Tigers.
In 1985, Greenberg was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys. After surgery and treatment, he passed away on September 4, 1986 in Beverly Hills, California. He was survived by his wife, Mary Jo, his children, two brothers, a sister, and eight grandchildren. He was 75 years old. He is buried in Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986–1990. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
Berger, Ralph, "Hank Greenberg," The Baseball Biography Project http://www.bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v;=l&bid;=702&pid;=5439 (December 30, 2004).
"Hank Greenberg," BaseballLibrary.com, http://www.baseballlibrary.com/baseballlibrary/ballplayers/G/Greenberg–Hank.stm (December 30, 2004).
"Hank Greenberg," Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/greenberg.html (December 30, 2004).