Baseball Digest Birthdays: Hank Greenberg | Baseball Digest
When Henry Benjamin Greenberg was born on the first day of 1911, little did anyone know of the impact he would have on major league baseball as well as society in general.
One of four children, his early youth in the Bronx, NY gave no indication of the athlete he would become. That all changed while he was a student at James Monroe High School. Hank stood out in soccer, basketball, and of course baseball, where he was a 1st baseman. His position would impact his future, because in 1929 the New York Yankees wanted to sign the 18-yr old, but Lou Gehrig was blocking his spot. So instead Greenberg enrolled at New York University. One year later he became a member of the Detroit Tigers organization.
He made his major league debut on September 14, 1930 and became a fixture in the Tigers lineup beginning with the 1933 season. Along the way there were minor league stops in Raleigh, NC, and Beaumont, TX. While he didn’t contend with the instant vitriol that Jackie Robinson faced as a black man, Greenberg’s name and religion brought out catcalls in the civil rights challenged south. But when Greenberg became a member of the Tigers he found out the north wasn’t much better- he faced antisemitism wherever he went, including from his hometown fans.
Greenberg used the insults as a motivational tool to bash opposing pitchers and became an icon to hundreds of thousands of Jewish sports fans.
My father, Charlie Sarver, is a die-hard Yankees fan. He was 19 when Greenberg retired after the 1947 season, but had this to say about him recently:
“Many Jewish baseball fans of other teams than Detroit followed his career with pride. There weren’t many players of our faith in the game then as there is today. I know (your) Grandpa Max liked the Giants because they had a player named Sid Gordon who played third base and the outfield at the time in the ’40′s. So we rooted for Hank, but not so much when the Tigers were playing the Yanks.”
In 1938 the orginal Hammerin’ Hank challenged Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, finishing with 58. He also led the league in walks that year with 119 as some opponents were determined to keep him from breaking the Bambino’s mark. The prior year he finished with 183 RBI, one shy of Lou Gehrig’s American League record.
Greenberg was the winner of two MVP awards, the second coming in 1940 as the U.S. was readying to enter World World II. A year later he would become the first well known major leaguer to enlist in the armed services and spent four of his prime years fighting Nazi Germany.
He returned to Detroit in 1945 and one year later amassed a tremendous offensive season with 44 home runs and 127 RBI. But a falling out with the Tigers over his contract led them to sell the 35-yr old to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he would play the final year of his career. With Pittsburgh, Greenberg became the first player with a $100,000 contract, but he decided to retire after 13 big league seasons at the conclusion of the 1947 season.
In 1977 writer Joe Falls reminisced about the “Big Bruggy’s” exploits in the old Tiger Stadium and had the chance to sit down with the Tigertown legend himself. Check it out here!
Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, Greenberg hit 331 home runs, drove in 1,276 RBI, and compiled an astonishing 1.017 career OPS. He was also a member of four AL pennant winners and two World Series championship teams.
Post active playing career, Greenberg served as the Cleveland Indians farm director and was later their general manager and part-owner with Bill Veeck. He would later serve in the same capacity with Veeck and the Chicago White Sox before leaving baseball for a successful career as an investment banker.
Hank Greenberg died in 1986 at age 75, having established a tremendous legacy in baseball, society, and among those of the Jewish faith. In 1998, filmmaker Avika Kempner released the remarkable documentary, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”. A must see, not just for Jews, but for any fan of baseball.
Also Celebrating A Birthday Today:
Fernando Tatis, born on January 1 1975, has spent eleven years in the big leagues and is the only player in history to hit two grand slam home runs in one inning!
LaMarr Hoyt, born in 1955, won 98 games over 8 seasons with the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres. He won the 1983 American League Cy Young Award with Chicago!
Tim Keefe, a Hall of Famer, was born in 1857 and spent 14 seasons in the big leagues with six teams. He won 342 games while pitching just one season where pitchers threw from the modern day distance of 60 feet 6 inches. During much of his career, pitchers threw from 45 and then 50 feet!
Drew Sarver is the Yankees content editor and a contributor for BaseballDigest.com. You can also read his work at his blog, My Pinstripes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter at @BD_Sarver and @MyPinstripes.