As readers of this column recall, we’ve been focused on the year 1947 the past few months. Seventy-five years ago, 1947, was, in my opinion, the most historic season in baseball history. It was the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first black in modern major league history when he was in the starting lineup on opening day for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Larry Doby, became the second black player, the first in the American League, when he broke in with the Cleveland Indians a few months later in July. Television brought baseball into more homes as some teams televised some home games for the first time that year. The 1947 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees was the first to be televised. While Robinson and Doby played in their first major league game, Jewish fans were saddened to learn that Hank Greenberg played in his last.
Hank Greenberg was first in popularity contests among polling taken of American Jews for most decades in the last century. Not only was he the best Jewish sports star of all-time, but the most charismatic and best looking. The six-foot-three-and half-inch Greenberg was more handsome than most of Hollywood’s leading men at the time and to Jews he was Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne all rolled into one. Looking most like Gregory Peck, Hank made sure to see Peck starring in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” the most popular movie in the Jewish communities across America 75 years ago in 1947. The movie, in which Peck starred as a gentile posing as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism in America, won several awards, including best movie of the year.
Besides being one of the best baseball players in the major leagues from 1933 through 1947 with time out for military service for most of 1941, all of 1942, 1943, 1944, and half of 1945, Greenberg’s playing days were mostly in the Hitler years. Greenberg became the regular first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in 1933, the same year Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Hitler committed suicide hiding in a Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945, and six weeks later on June 14, 1945, the 34-year-old Greenberg left Fort Dix for civilian life.
After stopping in New York to visit his parents and family, Greenberg flew to Detroit on June 20, ready to start workouts in preparation to resume his playing career with the Tigers. The last game Greenberg played in was on May 8, 1941, and it was a memorable one as he blasted two home runs before reporting for military service. Greenberg worked himself back into baseball shape and on Sunday, July 1, 1945, before a packed stadium containing many Jewish fans in Detroit, Hank homered in his first game in over four years.
Hank hit a home run with the bases loaded in the last game of the season to win the pennant for Detroit. Greenberg batted .311 and hit 13 homers since his July return and added two more home runs in the World Series to help the Tigers to victory. Hank, one of the most eligible Jewish bachelors in the country, married Caral Gimbel, one of the richest Jewish girls in the country, as she was the daughter of Bernard Gimbel, president and one of the owners of the mega-department store in Manhattan that bore his last name.
With his new wife clad in a fur coat on a cool Opening Day in Detroit, in 1946, Hank homered just as he did on the last day of the previous season. Greenberg’s 44 homers and 127 RBI was good enough to lead the American League that year. However, Tigers owner Walter Briggs took notice of his age and .277 batting average as it was the first time the Tigers’ slugger batted under .300 in a full season. Briggs, no friend of the Jews, plotted to send Greenberg to the National league so he won’t be able to play on a visiting team in Detroit (at the time American and National League teams only played teams within their league. The teams with the best record in each league met in the World Series).
Greenberg threatened to retire rather than play for the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, considered the worst team in the National League with no hope of reaching the World Series in 1947. Entertainer Bing Crosby one of the team of new owners on the Pirates lured Greenberg to Pittsburgh by making him the first player in baseball to earn $100,000. After hitting 25 home runs for the Pirates and mentoring their young slugger Ralph Kiner, Greenberg retired as a player and accepted a front office position with the Cleveland Indians.
Greenberg, who had a .313 career batting average, reached numbers far above most superstar players. In 1938 he challenged Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs by hitting 58. And that was during a 154 game schedule. Today the season is 162 games and the ball in the Greenberg and Ruth era was not as lively as today (more cork inside makes the ball travel farther). Greenberg’s favorite statistic is RBI, runs batted in. And he was one of the best of all-time. Hank knocked in 168 runs in 1935 and a whopping 183 in 1937. That’s a lot higher than one per game in a 154 game season, and that year he sat out the game on Yom Kippur and fell only one shy of Lou Gehrig’s all-time high. If you don’t think that’s high take a look in the paper at how many Aaron Judge has in a 162 game season.
Greenberg went on to executive positions with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, partnering with colorful owner Bill Veeck. He cashed out of baseball in 1961 and turned to investing. I was lucky enough to spend time and interview him in June of 1983 when the Tigers retired his uniform number on a sunny Sunday in Detroit. He was the most charismatic man I ever met in the baseball universe.