Seventy years ago, in 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his first major league game and Hank Greenberg played in his last.
After spending his career with the American League’s Detroit Tigers, Greenberg played in his first National League game on the same day (April 15) that Robinson made his big league debut and broke the major league color barrier. Robinson was 0-for-3 but scored a run against the Boston Braves at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
Greenberg did a bit better wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, as his sixth inning double against the Chicago Cubs drove in the only run of the game.
Two months earlier the Tigers had sold Greenberg’s contract to the Pirates. Greenberg was shocked, as were Tigers fans everywhere. Detroit’s Jewish community took it particularly hard; the 36-year-old slugger had been their favorite son and communal hero since 1933.
Greenberg initially announced he would retire rather than play for a bad team in the National League.
But entertainer Bing Crosby, one of the new owners of the Pirates, sang the praises of a move to Pittsburgh, enhanced by a new contract worth six figures. Greenberg, who earned $75,000 with Detroit (equivalent to more than $800,000 today) opted for the higher salary and a chance to mentor a young slugger named Ralph Kiner. The Pirates sealed the deal with the installation of “Greenberg Gardens,” which shortened the distance to the left-field wall and made Forbes Field a more homer-friendly venue.
A year earlier Greenberg blasted 44 home runs with Detroit and his 127 RBI led the American League. However, his .277 batting average marked the first time he was under .300 for a full season. But the Pirates thought there was enough firepower left in the tank to help the team and at the same time draw Jewish fans to Forbes Field, which was located only a few miles from the Squirrel Hill Jewish community.
While Pittsburgh embraced Greenberg, Robinson had a more mixed reception in Brooklyn. The borough’s Jewish fans welcomed him, as did most of the rest of the Ebbets Field faithful. But a good number of Dodgers fans and many of his teammates didn’t like the idea of a black man on the team. But general manager Branch Rickey and manager Leo Durocher were solidly on Robinson’s side and any potential players’ mutiny was shut down when management threatened to trade, sell, or release members of the anti-Robinson faction.
On May 6, the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike rather than play on the same field with Robinson. St. Louis was the capital of bigoted baseball at the time. It was only three years earlier that black fans were first allowed to pay their way into Sportsman’s Park, the home field the Cardinals shared with the St. Louis Browns – but they had to sit in the screened-in section of the lower right field bleachers.
National League president Ford Frick took a tough stance against the Cardinals, quickly ending the strike threat with this statement: “The National League will go down the line with Robinson, whatever the consequence.”
Nine days after the Cardinals threatened to strike, the Dodgers were playing the Pirates and Robinson and Greenberg collided in a play at first base. The next time Robinson ran down the line, Greenberg, the first baseman, asked how he was doing and offered words of encouragement, including a dinner invitation.
Robinson responded, “I’d love to go to dinner with you, but I won’t because it would put you on the spot.” It was the beginning of a long relationship. Greenberg recalled that day in Pittsburgh some four decades later when I spent time with him.
“I admired Jackie that afternoon,” Greenberg told me. “He was a prince, playing hard and not seeming to pay attention to the taunts of some of my teammates on the Pirates. Many were dumb, ignorant Southerners who couldn’t speak properly and didn’t graduate high school. They called him every racist thing they could think of. And here was Jackie, better than any player on our team and a college man who starred in football and basketball. He was a real man.”
Robinson regularly received death threats in the mail and his Dodgers teammates had a meeting about what to do about it. Backup outfielder Gene Hermanski came up with an idea. “Let’s all wear [Robinson’s uniform] number 42; that way the shooter won’t know which one is Jackie.”
That idea never came to pass, of course, and Robinson went on to help the Dodgers win the pennant by batting .297 with 12 home runs and a league-leading 29 stolen bases. The 28-year-old Robinson was presented with the first-ever National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Greenberg batted .249 with 25 homers in his first and last season in the National League. Over his 13-year playing career, Greenberg hit for a .313 batting average, blasting 331 home runs in 5,193 official at-bats.
Robinson would go on to career numbers of a .311 average, 137 home runs, and 197 stolen bases in 4,877 at-bats over 10 seasons, helping the Brooklyn Dodgers win seven National League pennants and one world championship.