Baseball was the first organized sport I learned to play and appreciate, largely due to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey’s radio broadcast of the Detroit Tigers. I would sneak my small transistor radio under my pillow during the summer to listen to the games each night. Not only did I learn about the current Tigers, but I began to develop an appreciation for the Tigers of the bygone era.
One of the notable names to appear on the Tigers’ scorecard for a dozen seasons was “Hammerin’” Hank Greenberg. His story is told in his autobiography Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life.
Tigers fans lost four-plus seasons of this dominant ballplayer when Hank served in the armed forces during World War II. And then the Tigers lost out again when a rift between two-time American League MVP Greenberg and Tigers owner Walter Briggs saw Hank traded to Pittsburg for the final year of his career.
Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer in the Major Leagues, but he was the first one who was almost perpetually in the spotlight. From the moment he stepped on the field, he vaulted to the top of nearly every offense category.
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In 1938, Hank was chasing Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and many feel he didn’t break it because many pitchers didn’t want to see a Jew steal The Babe’s record, so they didn’t give him anything to hit. The previous year, Hank was chasing Lou Gehrig’s RBI record and ended up knocking in 184 runs (just one shy of Gehrig’s record), again in spite of the lousy pitches he was seeing.
Hank’s career stats are all the more amazing considering the four-plus seasons he missed during his military service. His enlistment period was actually up two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. On hearing that news, Hank said, “That settles it for me, I am reenlisting at once,” making him the first Major Leaguer to enlist in the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Thankfully for Tigers fans, Greenberg returned to the lineup in time to help the team win the World Series in 1945. In four World Series appearances, he had a .318 batting average, with 5 homers, and 22 RBIs.
After leaving the playing field, Hank moved into the front office with the Cleveland Indians and then the Chicago White Sox. He revolutionized the way teams used their minor league farm system, while still battling and overcoming the antisemitism that was so present even in the ranks of baseball team owners. Jackie Robinson was grateful for the encouragement and advice that Greenberg gave him while he faced very similar ugly treatment when he broke into the Major Leagues.
If you are a Detroit Tigers fan, this is an excellent book to add to your library.