Hank Greenberg

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For the insurance mogul nicknamed Hank Greenberg, see Maurice R. Greenberg

Henry Benjamin "Hank" Greenberg (January 1, 1911 - September 4, 1986), nicknamed "Hammerin' Hank", was an American player in Major League Baseball.

Early Life

Template:MLB HoF He was born in New York City to an Orthodox Jewish family and attended James Monroe High School in the Bronx, where he was an outstanding all-around athlete. His preferred sport was baseball, and his preferred position was first base. In 1929, he was recruited by the New York Yankees, who already had a capable first baseman: Lou Gehrig. Greenberg turned them down and attended New York University for a year, after which he signed with the Detroit Tigers.

Early Career

He played minor league baseball for three years, and was named Most Valuable Player in the Texas League.

In 1933, he joined the Tigers and hit .301 while driving in 87 runs.

Starring as a first baseman and outfielder with the Detroit Tigers (1930, 1933-1946), and briefly with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1947), he played only nine full seasons. He missed three full seasons and most of two others to military service during World War II, and missed most of another season with a broken wrist. In seven of the nine years in which he was active, he was one of the dominant players in the game, beginning in 1934, his second major-league season, in which he won his first MVP award and helped the Tigers reach their first World Series in 25 years.

As a fielder, the 6'4" Greenberg was awkward and unsure of himself early in his career, but he mastered his first-base position through countless hours of practice. When he was asked to move to the outfield in 1940 to make room for Rudy York, he worked tirelessly to master that position as well.

Records and Baseball style

A prodigious home-run hitter, he narrowly missed breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record in 1938 when he hit 58 home runs. The story goes that several pitchers intentionally walked Greenberg towards the end of the season rather than give a Jewish man a chance to break Babe Ruth's record. (There is some reason to dispute this as a motive. It is true that the Cleveland Indians did not give Greenberg good pitches to hit during the last week of the season; it is also true that Detroit and Cleveland were battling for third place, which in those days carried with it a share of World Series profits, so Cleveland players had a financial interest in keeping Greenberg from hitting home runs.)

For his own part, Greenberg felt that runs batted in were more important than home runs. He would tell his teammates, "just get on base", or "just get the runner to third", and he would do the rest. He batted in 170 runs in 1935 and in 1937 topped that with 183 (a figure bettered only by Hack Wilson in 1930 and Lou Gehrig in 1931).

After moving to the outfield in 1940, Greenberg led the Tigers to a pennant and won his second MVP award, becoming at the time, only the second player ever to win the MVP award at two different positions.

WWII Service

The Detroit draft board initially classified Greenberg as 4F for "flat feet." Rumors that he had bribed the board and concern that he would be likened to Jack Dempsey, who received negative publicity for failure to serve in World War I, led Greenberg to be rexamined, and he was found fit to serve.

Although drafted in 1940, he was honorably discharged after Congress released men aged 28 years or older from service, being released on December 5, 1941, two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Greenberg re-enlisted and volunteered for service in the United States Army Air Corps. He graduated from Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a first lieutenant. He eventually served overseas in the China-Burma-India theater, scouting locations for B-29 bases.

Return to Baseball

Greenberg remained in uniform until the summer of 1945. Without the benefit of spring training, he returned to the Tigers and helped lead them to a come-from-behind American League pennant, clinching it with a grand-slam home run on the final game of the season. In 1946 he returned to peak form.

It is often estimated that Greenberg, had he played in another era uninterrupted by war, would have amassed between 500 and 600 home runs and 1,800 to 2,000 RBI. As it is, his totals of 331 home runs and 1,276 RBI are amazing for a 1,394-game career. He also hit for average, batting .313.

In 1947, Greenberg and the Tigers had a lengthy salary dispute. When Greenberg decided to retire rather than play for less, Detroit traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates. To persuade him not to retire, Pittsburgh made Greenberg the first baseball player to earn over $100,000 in a season (though the exact amount is a matter of some dispute). Team co-owner Bing Crosby recorded a song, "Goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye" with Groucho Marx and Greenberg, to celebrate Greenberg's arrival. The Pirates also moved in the seats in Forbes Field's cavernous left field, renaming the section "Greenberg's Gardens", to accommodate Greenberg's pull-hitting style. Greenberg played first base for the Pirates for 1947, and was one of the few opposing players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson to the majors.

Coaching and Ownership

The following year, Greenberg retired from the field to become the Cleveland Indians' farm system director and two years later, their general manager. His contributions in finding and developing talent contributed to that team's successes through the 1950s. He followed Bill Veeck to the Chicago White Sox, as part-owner, then retired from baseball in 1963 to go into investment banking.

He married Coral Gimbel (of the New York department store family) on February 18, 1946, three days after signing a $60,000 contract with the Tigers. Their son, Steven, played five years in the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers organizations.

Awards: American League Most Valuable Player, 1934 and 1940. American League All-Star team, 1937-1940. Elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956.

Greenberg died in Beverly Hills, California and his remains were entombed at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Documentary: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, 2000.

Autobiography: The Story of My Life, ISBN 1892049236


Greenberg was considered a sports icon in the Jewish American community.

Greenberg was not the first Jewish man to play major-league baseball, but by the end of his career he had become by far the best Jewish player ever, and the first major Jewish star. In the 50 years since Greenberg's retirement, only Sandy Koufax achieved similar success among Jewish players. Greenberg was subject to the most vicious ethnic taunting seen in the sport prior to the arrival of Jackie Robinson in 1947, yet Greenberg nevertheless became a first-rank ballplayer and an icon among Jews in the United States.

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