Birdie Tebbets, one of those baseball lifers, said that aside from Jackie Robinson, the first African American to break the Major League color line, no one had a tougher time of it than Hank Greenberg, the game’s first Jewish superstar.
In 1938, the sensational slugger for the Detroit Tigers almost accomplished the impossible: improve on the otherworldly total of the 60 home runs the mighty Babe Ruth blasted in 1927. While Greenberg’s fans were relishing the chase, the rest of the world was more concerned about the goings-on in Germany where Adolf Hitler and his fascist allies were implementing their plan for global domination, including the extermination of the Jewish people.
Greenberg — 6-foot-4-inches tall and 220 pounds — ran counter to anti-Semites who claimed Jews were unathletic and weak. He was a symbol of strength for his people, both physically and spiritually. In 1934, in the midst of a heated pennant race, Greenberg decided he would not play on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the most sacred one on the Jewish calendar. It was not because he was religiously observant but out of respect for his ancestors. Alan Dershowitz, the prominent attorney and law professor, said that “Hank Greenberg was what they all said we could never be. He defied Hitler’s stereotype. For that very reason, I think he may have been the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s.”
That Greenberg — who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956 — even chose to sign with a team based in perhaps the most anti-Semitic city in the country says something about his desire to play.
Detroit was home to Henry Ford, recipient of the Service Cross of the Order of the Eagle, Germany’s greatest honor to a noncitizen. Ford was a proponent of the vicious pamphlet, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and blamed the 1919 Black Sox scandal on the Jewish gamblers who were ruining the national game.
Detroit also “boasted” Father Charles Coughlin, a notorious radio preacher who similarly blamed Jews for most of the problems facing the United States.
Greenberg usually faced the leather-lunged haters on and off the field with a quiet dignity, but there were instances where he would no longer tolerate the jibes. After some particularly nasty bench-jockeying by a member of the Chicago White Sox, he stormed into their clubhouse after the game, demanding the guilty party face him man-to-man. The invitation was declined. No one wanted to face an angry Greenberg.
As the 1938 season wore on, news from Europe made its way from deep inside the newspapers to the front page. Unlike today’s socially conscious athletes, Greenberg and his contemporaries rarely were asked for the opinions on current affairs. In his memoir, “Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life,” he wrote, “Nobody expected war, least of all the ballplayers. I didn’t pay much attention to Hitler at first or read the front pages, and I just went ahead and played. Of course, as time went by, I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run. I was hitting one against Hitler.”
Rather than wait to be drafted, Greenberg joined the armed forces in the spring of 1941. He was discharged several months later, on Dec. 5. While driving home, he learned the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and immediately re-enlisted, the first major leaguer to do so. All told, Greenberg lost three full seasons and parts of two others in the service of his country, prime years for an athlete. He thought his playing days were over and said he almost expected to die in combat. But he did return, helping the Tigers win the 1945 World Series. He retired after spending the last season of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Greenberg always said he didn’t want to be known as a great Jewish ballplayer. Rather he wanted to be known as a great ballplayer who happened to be Jewish. A number of baseball historians have suggested that as Greenberg came closer to the record in 1938, opposing managers ordered their pitchers not to give him anything to hit, lest a Jew displace the Bambino. But Greenberg — ever the mensch — always took the high road, claiming he came up short because he simply ran out of time.
• Ron Kaplan, an award-winning journalist and blogger, is the author of “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” (2017, Sports Publishing). You can follow him on Twitter at @RonKaplanNJ and at RonKaplansBaseballBookshelf.com and KaplansKorner.com.
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