This excerpt from The Big 50: Detroit Tigers: The Men and Moments that Made the Detroit Tigers by Tom Gage is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/big50tigers.
“I’m going back in. We’re in trouble, and there’s only one thing to do—return to the service.” —Hank Greenberg, December 9, 1941
He was a true star. He hit home runs. He drove in runs. He was friendly, handsome, and articulate. In today’s world Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg would have been a multimedia, social media, and—any type of media—darling. And although he was a target of slurs for his Jewish heritage—baseball being the hotbed of prejudice that it was—he became a hero. Not just to fellow Jews, but to all baseball fans who appreciated his dignity, as well as the class with which he conducted himself. “I don’t recall anyone I ever played with or against having a bad word for him,” Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser once said about him.
What was the greatest achievement of Greenberg’s career? There is no shortage of choices. It might have been the home run he hit for the Tigers in his first game back from World War II. He hadn’t played in a major league game since 1941, but in the eighth inning of his return on July 1, 1945, he connected with the bases empty.
Or it could have been the grand slam he hit to clinch the American League pennant for the Tigers on the final day of that same season. Greenberg was hitting just .219 after 29 games into his return from military service when he suddenly caught fire and hit .547 in his next 15 games. By the time the Tigers were down to needing just one more victory, his batting average was .309. It was a soggy Sunday afternoon in St. Louis for the opener of a possible doubleheader against the Browns. The Tigers led the Washington Senators by one game, but the Senators had no games remaining. If the Tigers had lost to the Browns, they would have had to play again. Weeklong rains had made a swamp of Sportsman’s Park, so it was in the mud, and with only 5,582 on hand, that the Tigers trailed 3–2 in the top of the ninth when Greenberg—after an intentional walk to Doc Cramer loaded the bases—hit the dramatic slam that clinched the A.L. pennant. The next day the Detroit Free Press called it “the most thrilling home run in the history of baseball.”
After that the Tigers downed the Chicago Cubs in seven games to win the World Series. Greenberg hit the Tigers’ only home runs, knocking two out of the park. The choices for his greatest achievement, however, don’t end there. There were the 184 runs he drove in during the 1937 season. Then again, it might have been when he was named the A.L.’s Most Valuable Player in 1935 or the second time he won the award in 1940.
Likely, though, his most significant achievement had nothing at all to do with baseball.
It almost certainly was Greenberg’s unwavering sense of duty to his country. The year was 1941, the month was April, more than seven months before Pearl Harbor. With war raging in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed the Selective Training and Service Act the year before, meaning that conscription was back.
Baseball players were suddenly eligible to be drafted, even if they had several major league seasons under their belts, Greenberg had made himself an immediate candidate to be drafted when he became the first A.L. player to register. The future Hall of Famer had flat feet, a condition that looked as if it might make him exempt. But when he passed a second exam, the probability of being drafted became a reality. Local speculation ran rampant about when it might occur. Sooner rather than later, it turned out. After hitting two home runs on May 6, Greenberg reported for military service the next morning. “Uncle Sam is the only boss I know now,” he said.
The constant publicity about the draft process had been difficult on him. When the day finally arrived, he welcomed it. “It will be a relief to get in the army and have all this bother over with,” he told the Detroit Free Press.
The two home runs he hit in his final game before reporting did not surprise anyone familiar with his career. Greenberg was a prodigious slugger. He threatened Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in 1938 before falling short with 58. He also could have eclipsed 500 career home runs if military service had not intervened.
Power defined him as a hitter; honor defined him as a person. Sometimes the two elements meshed. In the September pennant race of 1934, Greenberg didn’t play on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) but had earlier changed his mind about playing on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). He responded by hitting two home runs in a 2–1 victory against the Boston Red Sox. By playing on one holiday, but not the other, he was true to his faith as well as to his profession.
Comfortable on baseball’s biggest stage, Greenberg also hit five home runs in the 23 World Series games in which he played. In 12 major league seasons, he hit at least 25 home runs eight times and more than 35 home runs five times. Whenever he fell short of his normal numbers, there was a legitimate reason. In 1933, for instance, he hit only 12 home runs, but he was a 22-year-old rookie that year. Despite hitting .301, neither he nor his power had fully matured. In 1936 Greenberg was limited to 12 games—and to one home run—because of a broken left wrist sustained in a collision at first base. The initial prognosis was that he would miss a month to six weeks, but he ended up sitting out the rest of the season.
Not yet accepting the injury’s severity, Hank thought he was recovering “faster than expected” in late May, only to hear from New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy that “these wrist injuries are bad,” which was why McCarthy doubted from the time it happened that Greenberg would be of much help the rest of the year. However, the hope of playing again kept teasing the Tigers’ big first baseman. In June it was thought Greenberg would return on July 1, but he didn’t. Saying he had suffered through the “tortures of the damned” by not being able to play, one target date for his return followed another. But his wrist didn’t fully heal until October. Except for 55 plate appearances in April, he lost the entire 1936 season.
Such a setback was minor, however, compared to the challenge Greenberg faced five years later when the slugger became a soldier. He reported for duty in May, but the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred two days after his honorable discharge in December, 1941, so he went right back into the army. By that time, Hank had long since become a role model. “Among Jews he was really a pathfinder,” remembered Al Rosen, both a major league player and executive during his career. “Coming through the minors, I’m sure he encountered a lot of anti-Semitism. I guess if you want to draw an analogy, it would be the equivalent of what Jackie Robinson went through.”
Opposing fans were rough on Greenberg after he reached the majors. The New York City native often heard himself being called “that dirty Jew.”
But he was so highly regarded for the way he conducted himself that the Free Press, when Greenberg was drafted, wrote an editorial calling him “an honor to the game, an honor to your people, and to your country. All Detroit wishes you the best in the new game of life you are about to undertake. We know you will give it all you have.”
There was never a question about Greenberg giving it his all. His commitment to being a soldier was no less complete than it had been to becoming the best hitter he could be. But his playing days were possibly over. In May of 1942, Greenberg told the New York World-Telegram, “I’m through with baseball. I’m not kidding myself about this war; I’m going to be in a long time—four or five years, maybe. What I’m going to do when I come out, I don’t know, don’t really care much at the moment. But I know I am through as a ballplayer.”
Greenberg was certainly wrong about his future. He wasn’t through as a ballplayer. He went on to become an honored soldier as well as an honored player who led the A.L. in 1946 in both home runs (44) and RBIs (127). Such a season might have been his finest moment—if his finest hadn’t already taken place by so quickly going back in.