Champions on Display MLB

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hank Greenberg: A Forgotten Story

A few years back, a colleague asked me why Jewish ballplayers won't play on Yom Kippur, but do play on Rosh Hashanah.

He knew the story about Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for the Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur. What he didn't know about was Hank Greenberg.

Most people don't know about Greenberg's story and it's a shame. It's one of the more important stories in baseball history, one filled with courage and heroism.

It's also one that many would say helped set the stage for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947.

No, Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer. There had been dozens of Jewish players long before him. But Greenberg was the sport's first Jewish superstar -- though that may not be an apt-enough description.

Within baseball, there are Hall of Famers and then there is the Pantheon of Immortals: Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio, Cy Young, Mays, etc.

Greenberg is part of that latter, exclusive group.

Greenberg played from 1933 to 1947, losing four years to World War II when he enlisted for military service even though he was exempt under U.S. Government guidelines.

His career numbers for that short span are amazing: .313 batting average, 331 homers, 1,276 RBI, .412 on-base percentage and .605 slugging percentage.

His best seasons rank among the greatest in the history of the game.

He hit 58 homers in 1938, which stood as the highest home run total between Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927 and Roger Maris' 61 in 1961.

He drove in 183 runs in 1937, one shy of Lou Gehrig's record set in 1931.

He won the AL MVP in 1935 and '40 and led the Detroit Tigers to World Series titles in 1935 and '45 and AL pennants in '34 and '40.

He was one of the game's greats.

But it wasn't easy, not by a longshot.

Greenberg grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx, N.Y., the son of Jewish immigrants. Like many Jewish kids, including those growing up today, he struggled assimilating into U.S. culture, but ultimately found his comfort zone through sports.

Through hard work, he overcame some clumsiness to become a good first baseman -- good enough to draw attention from several major league teams.

Greenberg received a contract offer from the Yankees, but turned it down because of some guy named Gehrig who played first. The Senators also wanted him, but Greenberg said no -- you know what they said about Washington: "First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League."

Greenberg tried out for the Giants, but Jon McGraw, who was desperate to find a Jewish superstar to boost sagging attendance, declined. Oops!

Ultimately Greenberg signed with the Tigers in 1929 for $9,000.

But it was not easy to be a Jewish ballplayer at that time. Anti-Semitism was rampant both in the game in the world as a whole.

While playing in the Texas League in 1932, teammate Jo-Jo White slowly walked around Greenberg, just staring at him. Greenberg asked White what he was looking at. White responded that he had never seen a Jew before. Greenberg let White look a while longer before asking if he saw anything interesting. White, who was looking for horns, responded, "You're just like everyone else."

But that wasn't the worst of it. Not even close.

Bench jockeying in the majors at that time was vicious with players uttering the most vile, racist and degrading comments in a crude and unsportsmanlike effort to unnerve their opponents.

The catcalls were brutal and the Cardinals were particularly merciless in the 1934 World Series.

But Greenberg wasn't necessarily one to just turn the other cheek.

According to one story, Greenberg eventually became so fed up with the razzing he was taking from the Chicago White Sox that he took on the entire team himself, challenging anyone who dared to yell an epithet, “If you got a gut in your body, you’ll stand up.”

No one did. Greenberg, afterall, was 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and a large man.

Teammate Birdie Tebbetts once suggested no one in the history of baseball other than Jackie Robinson was ever more abused than Greenberg. But I'd be remiss if I did not mention the abuse Lary Doby suffered through, which was no less brutal that what Robinson had to endure.

But it wasn't just on the field where things were difficult for Greenberg. It was the 1930s and the world was a dangerous place for Jews.

By 1933, Adolph Hitler had assumed power as Germany's chancellor and had begun to systematically strip Jews of their citizenship and rights, eventually leading to Krystallnact in 1938 and the start of the Holocaust.

But even in the U.S., anti-Semitism was growing, especially in the Detroit area, where Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford were powerful personalities, blaming Jews for everything from the Great Depression to the Russian Revolution, while singing the praises of Hitler, Nazism and fascism.

At first Greenberg struggled with being known as a Jewish ballplayer, wanting instead to be known simply as a great player.

Eventually Greenberg's heritage became as strength as he realized that with every homer he struck, every game he won, every championship he captured, he also struck a blow against the stereotypes and garbage being spewed by the Hitlers, Fords, and Coughlins of the world -- much as Jesse Owens stuck a blow against Der Fuhrer's racial theories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But early in his career, Greenberg faced a difficult decision. It was 1934 and the Tigers were in the heat of a pennant race as September rolled around -- and along with it came the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

In secular parlance, these are the holiest days of the Jewish year -- though every rabbi will say that title belongs to the Sabbath. Traditionally Jews spend those days in synagogue praying during a period that is marked with reflection, repentance and reconciliation of sins committed throughout the previous year.

So Greenberg, who had long drifted from his parents' orthodoxy, was faced with a difficult choice: honor his faith or fulfill his commitment to his team.

There was no easy answer. There was no clearcut choice.

The topic was debated in papers throughout the country and Greenberg consulted rabbis, friends and his team.

Manager Mickey Cochrane told Greenberg that the issue was a personal matter that he must decide for himself. That Cochrane was a wise man.

Rabbis offered three rulings:

  • One allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah, citing a passage from the Talmud that the holiday was happy day and children played in the streets of Jerusalem. Yom Kippur, though, was off limits.
  • The second allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah on the condition that only Kosher food be sold and no Orthodox Jews attend the game.
  • The third said no rabbi was in position to tell Greenberg what he should do. This was a decision he had to make for himself.

It's not clear how much influence the rabbis had, but ultimately Greenberg struck his own compromise: He'd play on Rosh Hashanah, but not on Yom Kippur.

But it wasn't an easy compromise. He was not at all at peace with the decision.

"Finally I decided I would play," Greenberg recalled. "But I don't mind telling you I was upset mentally and at heart when I went into that game. Some divine influence must have caught hold of me that day."

Greenberg hit two homers on Rosh Hashanah and the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 2-1.

Ten days later was Yom Kippur, but by that time the Tigers had seized control of the American League. Greenberg missed the game and went to synagogue, where he received a standing ovation from the congregation.

The Tigers lost to the Yankees that day, 5-3.

The next day Greenberg returned and homered as the Tigers locked up the pennant.

And in the process, he won over his critics and inspired Edgar Guest to pen the poem, "Speaking of Greenberg:"

The Irish didn't like it when they heard of Greenberg's fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphys and Mulrooneys said they never dreamed they'd see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a "double" when Hank Greenberg came to bat.

In July the Irish wondered where he'd ever learned to play.
"He makes me think of Casey!" Old Man Murphy dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off Pitcher Rhodes—they cheered like mad for that.

Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day world-wide 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 on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion—and I honor him for that!"

Greenberg never faced the dilemma again in his career. He played in nine Rosh Hashanah games, going 11-for-33 with six homers and 13 RBI, and sat on seven Yom Kippurs, including Game 6 of the 1935 World Series, though he did have an injured wrist.

Greenberg, in the process, set an example for generations of Jews who followed, including Koufax, on how to balance faith and assimilation. That doesn't mean Jews no longer struggle with that balance. It's a constant battle with no right answers except that which feels right to the individual making it.

Greenberg also laid down the blueprint for staring down, overcoming and defeating those who would spew hate, racism and ignorance.

He was a great ballplayer who should not only be remembered for his accomplishments on the field, but for all he had to endure as well.


Tonight is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. To everyone celebrating: Shana Tovah -- Happy New Year.


Dave said...

Best thing written on the site yet. Really nice, my friend. Shana Tov.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Dave :)

Fornabaio said...

Indeed, very nice.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Michael.

Ron Kaplan said...

Very nicely done, sir.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.