On Rosh Hashanah: Captain Hank Greenberg, WWII Hero and HOF Slugger
Simply put, Hank Greenberg is the most prodigious Jewish Major League Baseball slugger ever. Greenberg’s .313 career batting average, four AL home runs and four RBI titles plus two MVP awards earned the 12-year Detroit Tigers’ first baseman a Hall of Fame plaque in 1956 as the first Jew to enter Cooperstown. Had Greenberg not lost the entire 1942–1944 seasons, about 2,000 at bats missed during his peak performance years, Hank’s totals would have been loftier.
Few sacrificed a larger percentage of their careers to serve and protect their country than Greenberg. Hank played for nine and a half seasons, and was in uniform for four and a half years. Had Greenberg played during those war years, Sabermetrics indicates that he would have ended his career with 525 homers and 550 RBIs, instead of 331 and 1,274.
Greenberg always excelled athletically. At the Bronx’s James Madison High School, the 6’4” Greenberg dominated in baseball, basketball and soccer. After a year at New York University, in 1929 Greenberg signed with the Tigers for $9,000. Hank quickly worked his way through the minors with stops in Hartford, Evansville and Beaumont.
By September 1930, Greenberg was up for a cup of coffee with the Tigers, then hit .301 in his 1931 rookie season. By 1935, he was the American League’s MVP, helping steer the Tigers to the World Series title. In 1938, Greenberg’s 58 home runs were just two shy of Babe Ruth’s then-record. Greenberg achieved his diamond feats even though once outside the heavily Jewish Bronx, he was targeted for anti-Semitic, Jew-baiting slurs. Few were more vociferous than Detroit’s Henry Ford who blamed Jews for problems in the U.S. and Europe.
Throughout his career, Greenberg played baseball on the Sabbath, but never on the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But in 1934, with the Tigers clinging to a narrow lead over the surging New York Yankees, a crucial game fell on Rosh Hashanah. Torn between his faith and his teammates, Greenberg, after consulting a rabbi, chose to play. Hank socked two homers to lead the Tigers to a 2–1 victory.
While Greenberg may have been conflicted about playing ball on High Holy Days, he had no reservations about enlisting to defend his country. In his book “Baseball in Wartime,” Gary Bedingfield wrote that after Greenberg was drafted in 1941, he was honorably discharged when Congress released servicemen age 28 years and older. After Pearl Harbor, Sergeant Greenberg volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. “We are in trouble,” Greenberg told The Sporting News, “and there is only one thing for me to do — return to the service.” Greenberg predicted, incorrectly, that his enlistment meant the end of his baseball days, and that he was leaving the game with a “pang.” Assigned to the first Boeing B-29 Superfortresses’ group to go overseas, Greenberg spent 1944 flying in the India-China-Burma theater.
On July 1, 1945, Greenberg returned to Detroit’s starting lineup, and before 47,729 fans, homered to lead the Tigers over the Philadelphia A’s, 9–5. Greenberg’s presence in the daily lineup propelled the Tigers to a come-from-behind A.L. pennant. Greenberg kept on slugging. In 1946, he led the league with 44 home runs and 127 RBIs. After a contract dispute, Greenberg spent his final 1947 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After his retirement, Greenberg inexplicably fell short for Hall of Fame induction for nine consecutive years until Cooperstown elected him in 1956.
In 1986, at age 75, Greenberg, an American patriot, baseball superstar and inspiration to Christians and Jews alike, died from liver cancer. Before Greenberg passed, he wrote his wife Mary Jo a love letter that he stored in a safe deposit box for her to read after his death. When Mary Jo gathered the emotional strength to open Hank’s letter, she read his words of thankfulness to God that for 25 years he had been blessed with her devoted companionship, and of his gratitude for his Detroit Tigers’ heyday. Greenberg left Mary Jo this message: “Shed no tear for me…I’ve had a wonderful life, filled with personal success, and good health.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.