The Tigers' 'Hammerin' Hank' Greenberg

Greenberg was 19 when he signed with the Tigers in 1930. He can be seen in the second row from top, second from left, in this spring training photo taken March 23, 1930. Charlie Gehringer is third from right in the second row (seated) and Billy Rogell is fifth from left in the first row.

It was September of 1945 and World War II had just been decided the month before. For the Detroit Tigers there was another battle to be won. The Washington Senators had finished the season with a record of 87 victories and 67 defeats, but the Tigers still had two games to play. With a record of 87 – 65, they only needed one victory to claim the American League pennant.

The last two games were scheduled to be played Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 29 and 30, against the St. Louis Browns. It rained all day Saturday, forcing a double-header on Sunday.

The rain continued Sunday, but began to slacken in the afternoon. The field was a quagmire, but the umpires, anxious to end the season, ordered the groundskeepers to uncover the field and the game got under way, more than an hour after the official game time.

After eight innings, the Browns were leading 3-2, but in the ninth the Tigers loaded the bases for their big first baseman, Hank Greenberg. Greenberg, just returned from four years in the military, showed the war had taken none of his edge away as he drove the ball deep into the left field stands for a dramatic grand slam home run, winning the game 6-3 and clinching the Tigers’ seventh American League pennant.

Greenberg’s autograph was prized by his fans, especially Jewish ones.

      The Tigers went on to win the 1945 World Series, defeating the Chicago Cubs in seven games.

Greenberg was born on New York’s Lower East Side on Jan. 11, 1911, to David and Sarah Greenberg. His parents, both Romanian immigrants, moved to a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx when Hank was six. They sent him to Hebrew school and kept a kosher home. They had high hopes for their son.

As a boy, Hank played all types of sports but his passion was baseball. His decision to make it a career was initially a disappointment to his father and a disgrace to his mother. His father wanted him to pursue a college education and become a professional man — a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. But Hank didn’t want books; Hank wanted baseballs and bats!

Greenberg with his mother in 1939. He once told a reporter that “Jewish women on my block…would point me out as a good-for-nothing, a loafer, and a bum who always wanted to play baseball…”

      Hank told a reporter from the Detroit Jewish Chronicle in 1935 that “Jewish women on my block…would point me out as a good-for-nothing, a loafer, and a bum who always wanted to play baseball rather than go to school. Friends and relatives sympathized with my mother because she was the parent of a big gawk who cared more for baseball…than school books. I was Mrs. Greenberg’s disgrace.”

In time, his parents understood and accepted his love for baseball and his need to play the game.

Hank was 19 years old when he signed with Detroit. He played one game with the Tigers in 1930, and spent the next three years in the farm system. Hank finally won his Olde English “D” in 1933, joining the Tigers in June and taking over at first base. He was the Tigers’ first baseman for seven years, giving up the position to Rudy York in 1940 and moving out to left field.

He was one of the biggest and strongest baseball players in the major leagues. At 6 feet 4 inches and 210 pounds, his physical presence alone suggested power and strength. Matched with his determination and love for the game, he became a powerful slugger and earned the nickname “Hammerin Hank.”

In “Ellis Island To Ebbets Field,” author Peter Levine quotes actor Walter Matthau on Hank Greenberg: “…you couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the sight of one of our own guys looking like Colossus.”

Matthau said Greenberg “put to rest the stories and the jokes about the only things Jews could wind up doing was working as a presser or a cutter or a salesman…He eliminated all those jokes that started with ‘Did you hear the one about the little Jewish gentleman?'”

Greenberg at the end of his career with the Tigers…

      Greenberg played ball during the rise to power of Hitler and his Nazi party in Germany, and he understood his importance to American Jews as a symbol of strength. Anti-Semitism was rampant in this country as well as in Europe and he was frequently the target. He endured name-calling and used his anger to fuel his strength.

In 1934 Greenberg won praise for his decision not to play baseball on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times wrote that “his fine intelligence, independence of thought, courage and his driving ambition have won him the respect and admiration of his teammates, baseball writers, and the fans at large. He feels and acknowledges his responsibility as a representative of the Jews in the field of a great national sport and the Jewish people could have no finer representative.”

Greenberg enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, becoming the first American League player to enlist. He rose to the rank of captain and commanded a B-29 bomber squadron in the China-Burma-India theater. He served his country with patriotism and valor and returned home a war hero in September 1945.

Even though he gave four years of his athletic prime to the war effort, his numbers are still impressive.

He led the American League with 63 doubles in 1934, in 1935 he led the league with 36 homers and 170 RBI, he finished with 183 RBI in 1937, 58 homers and 144 RBI in 1938, and 41 homers, 50 doubles and 150 RBI in 1940.

He hit 331 home runs over his career and batted in 1,276 runs. He holds the Tigers’ record for most doubles in a season (63 in 1934); most home runs (58 in 1938); most home runs in home stadium (39 in 1938); most runs batted-in in a season (183 in 1937) and most total bases in a season (397 in 1937).

His 58 homers in 1938 fell 2 short of the record (at that time) of Babe Ruth’s 60. One fan complained with frustration, “they used to walk him, because they knew he was gunning for the fences. Boy, did that make me mad. He could have broke the record if they hadn’t walked him so much.”

Greenberg played the 1947 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who paid him the then-incredible salary of $100,000. He retired as an active player at the end of the season.

      Greenberg played in four World Series with the Tigers (1934, 1935, 1940 and 1945) and played on four American League All-Star Teams (1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940).

He was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1935 at first base and 1940 in left field — the first player to win the award at two different positions. In 1956 he was named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1983 the Detroit Tigers held a special ceremony to retire the uniform numbers of Hank Greenberg (No. 5) and Charlie Gehringer (No. 2).

Hank’s days with the Tigers were over after the 1946 season. Even though he was just back from four years in the service, he again led the American League with 44 homers and 127 RBI. He was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947 where his appreciative new owners reportedly paid him the then incredible one-year salary of $100,000 and renamed their left field stands “Greenberg Gardens,” in anticipation of his home runs. But Greenberg was near the end of his productive career and he knew it. He retired as an active player after the 1947 season to become a baseball executive.

Greenberg died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 75. He was eulogized in a Detroit News editorial: “He gave selflessly to any number of individuals and causes, without issuing self-aggrandizing press releases. If you don’t believe that, just watch. Praise will flow from places you never considered: from entertainers, politicians, tennis players, celebrities, groundskeepers, restaurant owners, sportswriters, baseball fans. Indeed, three days after his death, you can still walk onto crowded streets, or into places where sports fans congregate and hear people telling stories (‘Do you remember…?’) and sighing (‘…that was a great man.’) Can you think of a finer tribute?”

Here is a small sample of some of that praise:

His friend Louis Blumberg said, “You have to understand the kind of guy he was. In those years, there was a little crippled kid who sold pencils outside the Leland. Worst case of paralysis I ever saw. His face was all twisted, I never understood a word he said. But Hank was always doing things for that kid. He’d have him up for dinner in his suite or the dining room. It was as if he saw something in him, something that might have been if he hadn’t had such a bad break in life.”

Greenberg swtiched from first base to left field in the 1940 season and became the first player ever to be named MVP at two different positions.

      Baseball fan Ben Rose of Southfield recalled: “The fondest memory I have of Hank Greenberg was the time the Tigers paid for the United Hebrew schools to see a game. It must have been about 1938. In about the seventh inning, Hank came lumbering out to left field as usual and my friend Joe, as a joke, yelled to him in Yiddish that he was hungry. Hank turned around and called over to the peanut vendor and told him to give us a box of peanuts and charge it to him.”

Dr. Harold Bussey of Southfield: “A few years ago, Hank was one of the first to charge for his autograph, but the checks were made out to ‘Pets Adoption,’ his favorite charity. Only a few of us knew that Hank matched every dollar sent in out of his own pocket.”

Harriet (Greenberg) Colman of Southfield: “As a young teen-ager, I had a tremendous crush on Hank Greenberg. I became an avid baseball fan and since we shared the same last name, my friends called me ‘Hank.’ The year 1936 was a leap year in which a female could propose marriage to a male. I sent a written proposal of marriage to Hank. He answered my proposal with a friendly hand-written note to the effect that he wasn’t quite ready to marry at that time. Of course, I was thrilled to have a personal note from my hero — never dreaming that anything further would develop. However, shortly thereafter, I learned that he was to be a guest speaker at the youth group meeting of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Of course, I attended so I could meet him in person. I was a very shy 13 year old, but I found the courage to introduce myself to this gorgeous hunk as the girl who had proposed to him. With a number of members of the youth group present, he looked at me and with a twinkle in his eye said, ‘I accept.’ It was an unforgetable moment when Hank made a starry-eyed teen-ager feel very special.”

Lois Cohen of Southfield: “On Yom Kippur, in 1934, my mother, who was confined to a wheel chair with Multiple Sclerosis, and I were sitting on our front porch on Rochester in Detroit. The Shaarey Zedek synogague — then located on the next block on Chicago Blvd. at Lawton — was where Hank Greenberg had attended the High Holy Day services on that date. Well, lo and behold, Mr. Greenberg walked past our address and we waved to him. He came to our porch and shook hands with us. My mother was very pleased and never forgot his gesture.”

On off days in Detroit, the ground crews knew never to put the tarpaulin on the field. Greenberg would be out with half a dozen kids. He would pay them $20 bucks to shag his balls. They let him take extra practice in every ballpark in the league except Yankee Stadium.

Baseball fan Bill O’Neill said, “You don’t see players like him anymore. He was talented, but he was a great model for the kids, too. We used to see him walking up Michigan Avenue to games and he treated people like he was one of us. Hank Greenberg was the first player to ever give a party for the ground crew. That’s what kind of guy he was.”

“Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg at the start of the 1946 season, his first full season after returning from World War II. He proved he hadn’t lost his edge by leading the American league with 44 home runs and 127 runs batted in.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)By Laurie J. Marzejka / The Detroit News