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Hank Greenberg

First Jewish Baseball Star

Called back to the major leagues, Greenberg became a starter and first-baseman with the Tigers in June of 1933. The rookie made his debut with thirty-three doubles, twelve home runs, and a .301 batting average in his first season. The following year found him playing a stronger game, with sixty-three doubles (the most in his league), twenty-six home runs, 139 RBI (runs batted in), and an impressive .339 average. That year, "Hammerin Hank," as he became known, helped lift the Tigers to their American League pennant win. The team lost the World Series to the "Gashouse Gang" St. Louis Cardinals, however, with Greenberg hitting .321, but striking out nine times.

Greenberg impressed fans and fellow players not only with his solid performance in 1934, but also with his decision not to play baseball on the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur. Sports writers took note of his integrity, including Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times: "[Greenberg's] fine intelligence, independence of thought, courage and his driving ambition have won him the respect and admiration of 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."


1911 Born January 1 in New York, NY
1929 Signs with the Detroit Tigers; attends New York University one year
1930 Plays one game with the Tigers
1930-33 Plays in the minor leagues
1933 Becomes a starter with the Tigers
1934 Leads the American League with 63 doubles
1935 Leads the American League with 36 home runs and 170 RBI
1935, 1940 Wins American League's Most Valuable Player award
1937 Hits 58 home runs for a career record
1941 Enlists as an officer candidate in the Army Air Corps
1945 Returns to baseball, hitting a pennant-winning home run for the Tigers
1946 Marries department store heiress Carol Gimbel
1946 Becomes highest-paid baseball player of his day, with a $100,000 contract from the Pittsburgh Pirates
1947 Retires from baseball; becomes a baseball executive
1950 Becomes general manager of the Cleveland Indians
1956 Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame
1959 Divorces Gimbel
1986 Dies of cancer at age 75

Yet the budding baseball star often faced bigotry in the predominantly Gentile world of baseball. While it was rampant in pre-World War II Germany, anti-Semitism was not uncommon in the United States in the 1930s. Greenberg was often heckled by baseball spectators and by opposing players—some of whom joked that pitchers should try throwing a pork chop at him to strike him out. Throughout these trials, Greenberg maintained his dignity, and became more beloved among his fans for his fortitude and perseverance.

Helping the Tigers take a consecutive American League pennant in 1935, Greenberg led the league with thirty-six home runs and 170 RBI. A broken wrist kept him on the sidelines after the second game of the World Series, but the Tigers prevailed nonetheless. He wrapped up the year winning the league's Most Valuable Player Award. But after a strong start to the 1936 season, he broke his barely healed wrist once again, and sat out the remainder of the season. Fans worried that his career might be over, but Greenberg proved them wrong the following year, when he performed better than ever.

Hitting forty home runs and batting .337 in 1937, Greenberg netted 183 RBI, the third-highest total on record, one short of Gehrig's American League record. The following year, at the peak of his career, Greenberg took a shot at breaking Ruth's record-setting sixty home runs—only to fall two homers short. Many fans believed his rivals deliberately foiled Greenberg by walking him instead of letting him hit the ball—and some even cited this plot as anti-Semitic. Greenberg himself, fully aware of the bigotry that surrounded him, never believed this particular myth.

Slipping a little after his banner year, Greenberg hit thirty-three home runs and 112 RBI in 1939. The following year he relinquished his seven-year position at first base, switching places with outfielder Rudy York. The move proved successful, as Greenberg quickly mastered the new position, helping the Tigers take the American League pennant from the Yankees. Earning his second Most Valuable Player Award, he ended the 1940 season with league-leading fifty doubles, forty-one home runs, 150 RBI, and a.340 average.

In a hiatus from baseball, just before American involvement in World War II, Greenberg became the first baseball player to enlist in the U.S. Army. He was discharged two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which he re-enlisted as an officer candidate in the Army Air Corps. Rising to captain in the corps, he commanded a B-29 bomber squadron in the Far East until his discharge in 1945. Returning home a war hero, Greenberg, who had missed four seasons, hit a home run in his first game, thrilling fans. The Tigers went on to win another pennant, with Greenberg hitting a winning home run in the last game's final inning. He later said he believed the 1945 season was his greatest—despite his stronger 1938 record.

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Famous Sports StarsBaseballHank Greenberg Biography - Preferred Baseball To Schoolwork, First Jewish Baseball Star, Chronology, Highest-paid Player, Career Statistics - SELECTED WRITINGS BY GREENBERG: