Story of the Week
Before television made pro football so popular, baseball was America’s only national pastime. Jews, blacks and other "outsiders" were not easily welcomed into the sport.
A decade before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947 (see my article dated 8-9-01), Hank Greenberg became baseball’s first Jewish superstar.
He was born in New York in 1911. By the time he reached high school, he was already 6’3" tall. Baseball was his favorite sport, and he chose first base as his position.
Greenberg was offered a contract by the New York Yankees in 1929, but turned it down because the immortal Lou Gehrig was the Yankees’ incumbent first baseman. After one year at NYU, he signed with the Detroit Tigers.
He spent three years in the minors. After being named MVP in the Texas League, he was brought up to the Tigers in 1933. He personally made Detroit a contender in the American League.
Greenberg took them to the World Series in 1934; they lost to St. Louis. But a year later, Detroit won their first World Series, and Greenberg was the first Jew ever to be named MVP in either major league.
The 1938 season brought more drama for Greenberg when he made a significant run at Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season. He wound up the year with 58 home runs in this, the dead ball era.
In May, 1940, his baseball career was interrupted when he was called to military service in the Army. In August, Congress declared that men over 28 years of age need not serve, and Greenberg was honorably discharged.
After Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Greenberg was the first major leaguer to enlist in the Army, even though he had been excused from serving. While he could have had a stateside job as an instructor of athletics, he chose to serve on the front line. He returned to the Tigers in 1945 when the war ended.
Greenberg led Detroit to another World Series victory in 1945 after returning to the team in midsummer of that year. He played one more season for Detroit, and played his last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947.
His career stats were sensational. He had a lifetime batting average of .313, and a slug percentage of .605. In just nine full seasons, he hit 331 home runs. He drove in 1276 runs. He scored 1051 runs. He won two league MVP awards. And all this despite losing four prime seasons to World War II, and another to a fractured wrist.
In 1954, Hank Greenberg became the first Jewish player elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He also became the first Jewish owner/general manager in baseball with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox.
Like Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg was a pioneer.
Last Week’s Trivia
How did the Boston Celtics get Bill Russell? In 1956, the Celtics sent Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the draft rights to Bill Russell. All three players involved in the trade are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but Boston got the better of the deal. The Hawks missed a golden opportunity to team Russell with the great Bob Pettit.
Trivia Question of the Week
What did Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi have in common before they became NFL head coaches? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.