GREENBERG, HENRY BENJAMIN


GREENBERG, HENRY BENJAMIN ("Hammerin' Hank"; 1911–1986), U.S. baseball player, first Jewish sports superstar, first Jew inducted into the Hall of Fame. Greenberg was born in Greenwich Village, New York, the third of four children, to Orthodox Romanian immigrants Sarah (Schwartz) and David, who owned a textile factory. The family moved to the Bronx, kept a kosher home, and sent Greenberg to Hebrew school, but young Henry just wanted to play sports. He became an outstanding athlete in baseball, basketball, and soccer at James Monroe High School, leading the basketball team to a New York City title in 1929.

After graduation from high school in 1929, Greenberg signed with the Detroit Tigers, and played one game for them in 1930. He then played three seasons in the minors. At Raleigh, North Carolina, one of his teammates walked slowly around Greenberg staring at him, saying he had never seen a Jew before. "The way he said it, he might as well have said, 'I've never seen a giraffe before,'" said Greenberg. "I let him keep looking for a while, and then I said, 'See anything interesting?'"

Greenberg, a strong physical presence at 6ʹ 4ʹʹ and 215 pounds, joined the Tigers permanently in 1933. In 1934 he hit .339, and drove in 139 runs to lead Detroit to its first pennant since 1909, but not without some fanfare: Rosh Hashanah that year fell on September 10, in the middle of the pennant race. Greenberg, in a quandary whether to play, consulted a rabbi, who told him it was permissible. He hit two homers that day to win the game 2–1, and the next day the Detroit Free Press printed Greenberg's picture with Happy New Year in Hebrew captioned above the photo. However, Greenberg did not play on Yom Kippur, receiving instead a standing ovation when he showed up in synagogue.

Greenberg's Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur decisions stirred intense interest in the Jewish community, where second-generation Jews saw in Greenberg's refusal to play on Yom Kippur an example of how to balance loyalty to religion and tradition with the need to integrate fully in American life. Greenberg's resolution was echoed 31 years later, when Sandy *Koufax refused to play Yom Kippur in the first game of the World Series.

In 1935 Greenberg again helped guide the Tigers to the pennant, and a World Series win over the Chicago Cubs despite breaking his wrist in the second game. He led the league in RBI's, a statistic he valued above all others, with 170, and was named MVP. In 1936 Greenberg broke his left wrist again in the 12th game of the season, and sat out the remainder of the year. Well rested, he came back in 1937 to lead the league again in RBIs with 183, one shy of the American League record held by Lou Gehrig. It was Greenberg's biggest regret that he failed to break that record, more than Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs that he chased the following season. Greenberg had 58 with five games left in 1938, and some claimed opponents prevented him from setting the record because of anti-Jewish sentiment, but Greenberg dismissed the notion as "crazy stories." He did, however, face constant reminders throughout his career from fans and other players on his ethnic background. "How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son-of-a-bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass without feeling the pressure?" he said. "If the ballplayers weren't doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the shit out of them."

The following season Greenberg was moved to left field, and his hard work to master the position – and his ever-powerful bat – resulted in a second MVP, one of only three players to win MVP's at two different positions. He again took the Tigers to the American League pennant, slugging 41 homers and driving in 150 runs.

Greenberg was drafted into the army 19 games into the 1941 season, and missed the rest of that year and the next three and a half seasons. When Pearl Harbor was bombed two days after he was discharged, Greenberg immediately volunteered for more duty, and rose to the rank of captain serving in the Far East. Greenberg returned in the middle of the 1945 season and again led Detroit to the pennant, clinching it with a grand slam in the top of the 9th inning of the last game of the season. "The best part of that homer was hearing how the Washington Senators players responded," said Greenberg. "'Goddamn that dirty Jew bastard, he beat us again.'" His seven hits in the World Series helped the Tigers again beat the Cubs for the world championship. Greenberg returned to first base in 1946, and led the league with 44 HRs and 127 RBIs.

Greenberg played his final year for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson became the first black to play baseball. Greenberg remembered the taunts he had to endure himself over the course of his career. Standing together at first base one game, Robinson recalled later, Greenberg "suddenly turned to me and said, 'A lot of people are pulling for you to make good. Don't ever forget it.' I never did."

Upon retiring Greenberg became a baseball executive, first as farm system director and general manager with the Cleveland Indians, and then as part owner and vice president of the Chicago White Sox.

Despite his lost years to the war, Greenberg remains high on the career list of achievement nearly six decades after retiring: The five-time All-Star batted .313, with 331 home runs and 1,276 RBIs in 1,394 games. His .605 slugging percentage is sixth all-time, and his rate of .915 RBIs per game is third-best all time. Greenberg was the subject of a documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), and author of an autobiography, The Story of My Life (1989), with Ira Berkow. Greenberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

[Elli Wohlgelernter (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.