It was Hank Greenberg’s 25th yahrzeit recently and I said Kaddish for baseball’s biggest Jewish superstar.
Greenberg had children, but I doubt any said Kaddish, and if it was said, it more than likely wasn’t in an Orthodox shul.
If I hear otherwise, I’ll let you know.
I have vivid memories of Hank’s passing 25 years ago.I was working for the Detroit Tigers at the time and was in my Tiger Stadium office.
The newspapers called, looking for some quotes.I was the lone Jewish employee around and gave them some memories.Outside of seeing Greenberg in old films, I’d never seen him play; his last season as a player was 1947 and I only began to follow baseball a couple of years later.
My personal memories of Greenberg were forged in 1983, when I had the chance to talk to him prior to a doubleheader. The occasion was the retirement of Greenberg’s uniform number between games.I was on the field for the ceremony, covering the event as a photographer for a national publication and some upper management folks of the Tigers.
I taped our conversation. Here are some highlights:
COHEN: You grew up in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium and not too
far from the Polo Grounds. Did you root for the Yankees or the Giants?
GREENBERG: I was a Giants fan. Most of the kids were, because the Giants were the outstanding team at the time. But the Yankees were the first to scout me and they made the mistake of taking me to the ballpark to watch the team play and they gave me a seat right behind the Yankees dugout. Paul Krichell, who was then the head scout of the Yankees, showed me where Lou Gehrig was. I took one look at Gehrig and saw those shoulders and he looked like he was going to last forever.
Fortunately, the Detroit club was interested in me and Detroit, even back then, had a reputation of being a great baseball town. So I decided to cast my lot with the Tigers and it was a great ballpark for a right-handed hitter to hit in and it was a great baseball town.
COHEN: What was your parents’ reaction to your chosen occupation?
GREENBERG: Growing up in the Bronx with Jewish parents, they wanted me to be doctor or a dentist or a lawyer. I decided to be a ballplayer, which automatically characterized me as a bum. The neighbors used to say my parents had three nice children and one bum. But little did they realize that 40 years later the athletes [would be] the millionaires and the lawyers and the dentists and doctors are the working stiffs. I was just a little ahead of my time.
COHEN: Did the Giants have any interest in you?
GREENBERG: I tried to get a tryout with them and I was the all-scholastic first baseman for the entire city of New York but they said they saw me play and that I didn’t have a chance to make it in the big leagues. They wouldn’t even let me in the ballpark just to shag balls.
Irwin Cohen took this picture of Hank Greenberg at the
Tiger Stadium ceremony to retire Greenberg’s uniform number.
COHEN: In 1934 – your second season in the majors – you batted .339 and hit 26 home runs, helping lead the Tigers to the pennant. Was that your biggest thrill?
GREENBERG: I can’t say it was the biggest. We had a great infield that year. The Detroit infield played in every game except one. I played in every game except one. I played 153 games and everyone else [third baseman Marv Owen, shortstop Billy Rogell, second baseman Charlie Gehringer] played in all 154 games. And we drove in 462 [a record that still stands]. I guess the “Million Dollar Infield” of the old Philadelphia team didn’t even have half that much.
COHEN: You had some fantastic years. In 1937 for example, you hit 40 home runs and knocked in a staggering 183 runs while hitting .337. In 1938 you had 58 home runs. Were you disappointed you didn’t break Babe Ruth’s record?
GREENBERG: No. It wasn’t that much of a disappointment to me, as Babe Ruth was head and shoulders above everybody. I wasn’t in his class as a home run hitter.
COHEN: You had five games to go and already had 58 home runs. What happened?
GREENBERG: Of the last five, two were in Detroit and three in Cleveland. The
last two – the doubleheader – they moved from old League Park to Municipal Stadium and it wasn’t very easy to hit a home run there because they didn’t have the enclosed fences in those days. You had to hit home runs into the seats.
Some Jewish fans still feel pitchers didn’t want a Jew to break Babe Ruth’s record.Greenberg disagreed.He felt many opposing players wanted him to break the single-season home run record, which at the time was 60.Greenberg went on to say that his 57th homer was a gift. He tried to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park home run and “I was out by a mile at the plate but the umpire was a friend of mine and so was the catcher, who didn’t argue the call.”
I can still hear Greenberg’s voice and his charismatic manner of speaking with a trace of the Bronx. Even though it’s 64 years since he played, he remains the biggest Jewish sports star of all time.
Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and earned a World Series ring. To read his illustrated biography on how he made it to the baseball field, send a check payable for $19.95 to Irwin Cohen, 25921 Stratford Place, Oak Park, Michigan, 48237. Cohen, the president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com.