Chapter I: Hank Greenberg: Baseball’s First Jewish Superstar

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As the Opening Day of the 2014 baseball season approaches, we are reminded of the outstanding American Jewish baseball players who have enriched “The American Game.” 

Chapter I: Hank Greenberg: Baseball’s First Jewish Superstar

Before television made professional football so popular, baseball was America’s only ‘national pastime’ and a symbol of the American values of competition and fair play. Nonetheless, the professional game reflected the nation’s prejudices, and Jews, African-Americans and other “outsiders” were not easily welcomed into the sport. A more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier Hank Greenberg crossed a different line of resistance: he became baseball’s first Jewish superstar.

Born into an Orthodox Bronx household in 1911, Greenberg stood six-foot three by the time he reached high school and was an all-city athlete in soccer and basketball. His favorite sport, however, was baseball. Somewhat awkward in the field, Greenberg chose to play first base, a position that demands the least mobility in the game. In 1929, the New York Yankees offered Greenberg a contract but he turned it down because the immortal iron man Lou Gehrig was their incumbent first baseman. Instead, Greenberg signed a contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Greenberg spent three years in the minor leagues, working hard each day to improve his fielding and hitting. After being named the Most Valuable Player in the Texas League, he was promoted to the Tigers in 1933, batting .301 and driving in 87 runs.

In 1934, led by Greenberg’s .339 batting average, the Tigers jumped from fifth place in the American League into a battle for the pennant. Never before had a Jewish player filled such a significant role for a major league team and, for the first time, Greenberg – and Jewish baseball fans all over the country – faced a dilemma. September tenth was Rosh Hashanah, a major holiday marking the start of the Jewish New Year. The Tigers, who led the league by four games in the standings, were playing the Boston Red Sox. Jewish fans and rabbis debated whether Greenberg, who by his accomplishments was winning acceptance for Jews among non-Jewish Americans during an era marked by anti-Semitism, should play on one of the religion’s High Holy Days. Greenberg came up with his own compromise: he played on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs that won the game, 2-1. Ten days later, he spent the fast day of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, in a synagogue. That day, the Tigers lost. Greenberg’s observance inspired the Detroit sports columnist Edgar Guest (a Christian) to write a poem, which read in part:

Come Yom Kippur holy fast day wide-world over to the Jew
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion and I honor him for that!

Greenberg came back the next day and struck a home run that clinched the pennant for the Tigers The Tigers would go on to lose the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games. A year later, the Tigers won the World Series and Greenberg was the first Jew voted Most Valuable Player in either major league.

The 1938 season brought more drama for Greenberg. With five games remaining in the season, Greenberg had hit fifty-eight home runs, challenging Babe Ruth’s record of sixty. With the eyes of the world on Greenberg in those last five games, he walked in many of his at bats. American Jews were certain that pitchers had deliberately failed to give him good pitches to hit for fear that he would break Ruth’s record. Greenberg himself gave the charge no credence.

In May of 1940, the Army interrupted Greenberg’s baseball career. One of baseball’s highest paid stars, his salary dropped from $11,000 per month to $21. In August, Congress decided that men over twenty-eight years old need not serve and Greenberg was honorably discharged. He planned to return to the Tigers the next season, but on December 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Even though he had been excused from serving, Greenberg was the first major leaguer voluntarily to enlist in the Army. While he could have accepted a stateside job as an athletic instructor, Greenberg chose to serve in the Army Air Corps in the China-Burma-India Theater, where he made a distinguished record.

When the war ended in 1945, Greenberg, age thirty-four, returned to the Tiger lineup in mid-summer and hit a home run in his first game back. Greenberg led the Tigers to another World Series victory that year, personally clinching the American League pennant with a grand slam home run on the final day of the season. Greenberg played two more seasons and then retired.

After retirement, Greenberg compiled another series of “firsts”: he became the first Jewish owner/general manager in baseball, assembling the 1954 Cleveland Indians team that won a record 111 games. Greenberg and Bill Veeck then purchased the Chicago White Sox in 1959. That year, the White Sox won the pennant for the first time in forty years. In 1961, Greenberg sold his baseball interests and went on to a successful career on Wall Street. In 1954, Hank Greenberg became the first Jewish player elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. His pioneering efforts as a player and owner paved the way for Jews in the top ranks of major league baseball, whether as a Hall of Famer like Sandy Koufax, a general manager like Al Rosen, or an owner and commissioner of major league baseball like Bud Selig.

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