Thursday, November 19, 2009
#5 Hank Greenberg
Hank Greenberg is not the first Jewish player in the Major Leagues (Lip Pike). He is also not the greatest Jewish player in baseball history (I'll take Sandy Koufax). He was not the only Jewish player of his era. (Harry Danning, Buddy Myer, Lou Boudreau....). So why is he the posterboy of Jewish athletes?
In the late 1990's era of Political Correctness, different minority groups took to their own icon. Jackie Robinson was honored and heralded by the black community, Roberto Clemente by the Latino, and Hank Greenberg by the Jewish community. Three legendary players, highly skilled and loved, not just by "their people" but by the country as a whole. Greenberg was the face of athletic Judaism, and he was well aware of the importance of how he conducted himself on and off the field. America was still a Protestant nation, and players of a differing religion or ethnicity received much derision from bench jockeys. Greenberg was able to garner much respect, both with the way he carried himself on the field, his boldness in standing up to entire team's verbal assaults, and the fact that the man could flat-out hit. He had an incredible work ethic, part from of his upbringing, and part of the necessity bourne from the Depression.
Born of Romanian immigrants, Greenberg enrolled in NYU but departed quickly to play baseball. After a short stint with the Tigers in 1930, he returned in 1933 to become one of the most feared sluggers in the post-Ruth era. He challenged Ruth's single-season home run record, falling short with 58 in 1938. As part of the G-Men, along with Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg, lead the Tigers to consecutive pennants in 1934 and '35. He was part of the 1934 infield with Billy Rogell, Marv Owen and Charlie Gehringer that knocked in 462 runs, the most by a single infield. Also notable about that infield was those four played every single game that year, with the exception of Greenberg who sat out on Yom Kippur.
Greenburg was indcucted into the Army on May 7, 1941. He was released from duty on December 5 of that year, because the army was allowed to discharge men over the age of 28. Three days later, Greenberg was at the enlistment office following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Greenberg served in the Pacific theater, and returned to the Tigers in 1945, and lead the Tigers to a pennant for the fourth time. He went to the Pirates in 1947 to wrap up his career, and then became part owner of the Cleveland Indians with Bill Veeck. He followed Veeck to the Chicago White Sox, and upon his executive retirement, lived out his remaining years in Beverly Hills.
Following his death, Greenberg's legacy has grown more than almost any other athlete. He went from being a cult hero in Detroit and the Jewish community to being one of the bigger names in baseball lore. His career numbers may not be as fearsome as his contemporaries, but factoring in 4.5 seasons lost to World War 2, and another to a broken wrist, it is easy to believe he would have reached 500 home runs, a total that at his retirement had only been achieved by Ruth, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. Greenberg's name lives on, while Ott and Foxx have faded. A documentary was released in 1998 entitled "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," which is a great look at his exploits and those who revered him.
Interesting fact: Greenberg's son Steve is the brainchild behind the Classic Sports Network, which debuted in the 90's and was soon purchased by ESPN to become ESPN Classic.
The Autograph: Hank Greenberg was the first player I ever wrote to who charged for his autograph. I was shocked at the 5 dollar price tag per autograph. That was a lot of money, and took a big chunk of my paper route money, but being a big Tiger fan, I didn't balk at sending money in and getting this card signed. What I thought was cool is that the proceeds all went to the Beverly Hills Humane Society. I wish I would have had the forsight to send a baseball to get signed, too. He even kept up with fan mail as cancer ate through his body, and Hammerin' Hank died in September of 1986.