The first "Hammerin' Hank"

Updated: May 20, 2005, 9:17 AM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"When Hank began playing in the minor leagues, a player from the South said, 'Hank, people tell me you're Jewish, but I can't believe it.' Hank said, 'Why?' And the other player said, "Because I heard that all Jews have horns in their head, like the devil,' " says Hank Greenberg's biographer, Ira Berkow, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

For most of his career Hank Greenberg was presumed to be carrying the fate of the Jewish people on his shoulders. That the Detroit Tigers star ranked only below Jimmie Foxx as his era's top righthanded American League slugger has suggested to some that he might have been second to nobody if he had had to worry only about opposing pitchers.

Greenberg
Hank Greenberg hit 58 homers in 1938 -- two shy of Babe Ruth's then record of 60.

Greenberg took his first step toward the Hall of Fame when he batted .339 with 39 homers, 139 RBI and a major league-leading 63 doubles in 1934. It was also near the end of this season that his Jewishness became an issue on the sports pages when he consulted a rabbi about whether he should play on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Mindful of the pennant race between the Tigers and New York Yankees, the rabbi struck a compromise for the September games. He said it was okay for Greenberg to play on the happy occasion of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) but dedicate himself to prayer on the more somber day of atonement (Yom Kippur). Greenberg acquiesced, and responded with two homers that gave Detroit a 2-1 victory on the first holiday.

The third of four David and Sarah Greenberg's four children, Hank was born on New Year's Day 1911 in New York City's Greenwich Village. His father, a Rumanian-Jewish immigrant, owned a successful cloth-shrinking business and provided a comfortable, middle-class life for his family in the Bronx, where Hank starred in baseball at James Monroe High School.

Tall and awkward, Greenberg failed to impress Giants manager John McGraw in a tryout and went to New York University on an athletic scholarship. But during his freshman year he signed a $9,000 contract with the Tigers in January 1930. His father, who had always disapproved of his son's baseball ambitions, gave in when he realized that a successful baseball player could make as much money as a doctor or lawyer, the careers he preferred for his children.

After three seasons in the minors, Greenberg was ready for the majors at 23. As a Detroit rookie in 1933, he hit .301 with 12 homers and 87 RBI in 117 games.

After holding out until a week before the start of the 1934 season, Greenberg went on to his holiday heroics and led the Tigers to their first pennant since 1909. In the World Series, he hit .321, but Detroit lost in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals.

In 1935, despite having 25 homers and 103 RBI at the All-Star break, Detroit manager Mickey Cochrane had passed him over for the AL team in favor of Lou Gehrig amid whisperings of anti-Semitism. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound first baseman went on to win his first MVP award that season, as he knocked in 170 runs, 40 more than anyone else in either league. He also tied for the major league high in homers with Foxx at 36, led baseball in total bases with 389 and batted .328.

A sprained wrist suffered in a collision at home in Game 2 limited him to six at-bats in the World Series, which the Tigers won in six games over the Chicago Cubs. And when he reinjured the wrist in a collision at first base early in 1936, he appeared in only 12 games all year.

The following season Hammerin' Hank came back with a vengeance, emerging as the biggest G of the so-called G-Men (along with Charlie Gehringer and Goose Goslin) with a .337 average, 40 homers, 49 doubles and an astonishing 183 RBI.

In 1938, he had an eye-popping 58 homers -- two shy of Babe Ruth's record -- with five games left. While some baseball historians say that anti-Semitism manifested itself by pitchers walking him, Greenberg and statistics say otherwise. In those five games, Greenberg went homerless, going 5-for-18 with four walks. That's about the same rate as he walked previously that season (115 in the first 150 games).

After what was for him an off year in 1939 (.312, 33, 112), Greenberg, who was never close to Detroit owner Walter Briggs, faced an ultimatum to switch positions to make room at first for the defensively inadequate Rudy York in 1940. Moving to leftfield, Greenberg led the AL in homers (41), RBI (150), slugging percentage (.670) and doubles (50) as he won his second MVP award in leading the Tigers to their third pennant in seven years.

Despite Greenberg hitting .357 with six RBI, Detroit lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds in seven games.

Greenberg
Hank Greenberg led the Tigers to the 1945 world championship.

In May 1941, seven months before the United States entered World War II, Greenberg became the first AL player to be drafted into the Army. He was discharged two days before Pearl Harbor, but re-enlisted after the Japanese attack, making it clear that he regarded himself as a role model not only for big league players but also for Jews generally.

The first major leaguer to return to baseball after the war in Europe ended (he was discharged in the summer of 1945), he sealed another Detroit pennant with a grand slam on the final day of the season. Then he led the Tigers to a seven-game World Series triumph over the Cubs with a .304 average, two homers and seven RBI.

After returning to first base in 1946 and leading the AL in homers (44) and RBI (127), Greenberg applied for the job of Detroit general manager. Briggs not only turned him down as unqualified but had him waived out of the league as other AL teams didn't want to pay him a high salary. There was speculation that Greenberg was angling to use his wife's family's money to take over the Detroit franchise. (He had married Caral Gimbel of the department store Gimbels on Feb. 15, 1946.)

Talked out of retirement by Pirates owner John Galbreath, Pittsburgh bought the 36-year-old slugger from Detroit for $75,000 on Jan. 18, 1947 and agreed to make him the first $100,000 player. Greenberg hit the final 25 homers of his total of 331 (to go with a .313 average) and tutored Pittsburgh prospect Ralph Kiner.

Buying a minority share of the Indians in 1948, Greenberg was a vice president under owner Bill Veeck before becoming farm director in 1949. From 1950-57 he was the team's general manager. A tough negotiator with players, he was even tougher with the press, a trait that got him in trouble in 1957 when he suggested to the board of directors that the team be moved to Los Angeles. During this time, he and Caral were divorced.

The loser in a power struggle in the Cleveland executive suite, he sold his stock. In 1959, he joined Veeck in taking over the Chicago White Sox. But Comiskey Park soon became headquarters for Veeck's and Greenberg's effort to win ownership rights to the expansion California franchise, scheduled to begin operations in 1961. The partners were so confident of success that they signed an agreement to broadcast Angels games over Gene Autry's KMPC.

But anti-Veeck owners made it clear that the offer would be accepted only if Veeck were cut out. Refusing to throw his partner under the bus, Greenberg backed out, and the franchise went to Autry.

In 1961, Veeck became sick and sold out to Arthur Allyn in June. Greenberg followed suit but remained as general manager for the rest of the season and was a vice president for several years.

Greenberg remarried, to Mary Jo DeCicco, in 1966, and they lived in New York until moving to Beverly Hills in 1974. Using his business shrewdness, he made a fortune in the stock market.

In August 1985 he had a cancerous kidney removed. He died in his sleep of cancer on Sept. 4, 1986 in Beverly Hills. Hank Greenberg was 75.

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