Thursday, June 6, 2019
June 6, 2019: Jewish American Journeys: Hank Greenberg
[On June 1, 1916, Louis Brandeis was confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the first Jewish American Justice. So this week I’ll highlight the American stories of Brandeis and four other exemplary Jewish Americans, leading up to a special weekend tribute to one of our best Jewish Studies scholars!]
On why we should better remember one of the first and greatest Jewish American athletes.
Like Jackie Robinson, in whose story Greenberg played a small but important role (on which more below), Henry “Hank” Greenberg wouldn’t need anything outside of his baseball talents and successes to be remembered as a titan of the sport. One of the greatest sluggers in baseball history, in an era when home runs were pretty hard to come by (and despite losing four prime years of his career to military service, on which more below), Greenberg was a two-time AL MVP in his nine seasons with the Detroit Tigers (1933-1940 and 1945-1946), a four-time AL home run champion, holds the American League record for the most RBIs in a single season (183, in only 154 games), and was the first player to hit 25 or more home runs in a single season in both leagues (doing so with Pittsburgh in the NL in 1947, his final season in baseball, at the age of 36), among many other accomplishments. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, and again, should be remembered first and foremost as one of his sport’s premier stars for a decade.
Yet also like Robinson, Greenberg was a pioneer as well as a star: the first Jewish American baseball player, and the first Jewish American star in any of the major sports. One of four children of David and Sarah Greenberg, Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Romania who owned a New York textile plant, Greenberg was born Hyman Greenberg in Greenwich Village in 1911. Although he was not denied entrance to the major leagues because of his ethnicity (indeed, he made his debut at 19, the youngest player in the league at the time), Greenberg did face persistent bigotry and discrimination; in one particularly striking incident, during the 1935 World Series an umpire had to clear out the entire Chicago Cubs dugout because they would not stop yelling anti-Semitic slurs. Moreover, his religion and culture presented unique challenges over the course of his career, as exemplified by his famous 1934 decision not to play in a game on Yom Kippur; he balanced that decision by choosing to play on Rosh Hashanah, in a game in which he hit two home runs and led the Tigers to a 2-1 victory, and Detroit Free Press columnist Edgar Guest honored Greenberg’s talents and Yom Kippur decision with a celebratory poem.
Greenberg was more than just a star and a pioneer, however; he was also an inspiring American, on multiple levels. Most obvious, and certainly noteworthy, was his World War II service: initially deemed 4F for flat feet, Greenberg requested a reexamination and was allowed to enlist in 1940; when he was honorably discharged a year later due to age, he re-listed; and by the war’s end he had served a total of 47 months, the longest of any major leaguer. Yet just as inspiring were some of Greenberg’s deeply American moments on the homefront. Not only was he one of the only opposing players to welcome Jackie Robinson to the majors in 1947 (Greenberg’s last season), Robinson also credited Greenberg specifically with helping him through that particularly challenging first season. And long after their retirements, Greenberg and Robinson were two of the only players (past or present) to testify on behalf of Curt Flood’s efforts to eliminate the reserve clause, efforts that led to the creation of free agency and a far more equitable system for players. For all these reasons, I would put Hank Greenberg alongside Jackie Robinson as two of baseball’s most influential and inspiring as well as greatest stars.
Last journey tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Jewish Americans you’d highlight?