A Jewish Tiger and His Misunderstood Stripes

Tigers roar.  It’s part of their nature.

In that sense, Hank Greenberg made a perfect Tiger.

From 1933 to 1946, Greenberg was one of the most feared hitters in baseball.  Playing for Detroit, he let his bat do most of the talking, and it didn’t just speak, it roared – fittingly – like a tiger.  And American League pitchers knew it.  A few of them may have heard the snarl before Greenberg even swung.  Damaged psyches tend to have fatalistic tendencies, and Detroit’s strapping cleanup hitter damaged his share of pitching psyches.

In one remarkable four-year span, he hit 172 home runs with a .327 aggregate batting average and 591 RBI’s.  However, he also played with an extraordinary weight on his shoulders.  He was the first Jewish superstar in Major League history, and the first Jewish anything during that period wasn’t going to have it easy.

Perhaps, if the world was slightly more just or if compassion spread its fingers a little wider, Greenberg wouldn’t have been made to endure quite as much as he did.  But the world wasn’t and those fingers didn’t in the 1930’s.  So, Detroit’s noble slugger had to play the game amid an ugly anti-Semitic undertow.

Angry voices came at him from every direction.  And since he was the lone prominent Jewish player in the game, he had to bear it alone.  When opponents failed to jostle him sufficiently with words, they tried to punish him physically.  In one particularly ugly episode, the Chicago White Sox urged one their players to spike the Detroit first baseman while sliding back into the bag on a pickoff attempt.  When the Chicago player, Joe Kuhel, did just that – swiping at Greenberg’s legs with his cleats, Greenberg had had enough.

He bounced Kuhel off the ground like a quarter off of a crisply made military bunk and went to unleash the full brunt of his frustration when teammates separated him from the dazed base runner.  However, Greenberg’s understandable rage had been untethered, and he was determined to confront not only Kuhel but the entire White Sox team about why they hated him – or the idea of him – so much that they wanted to cripple him on the field.

So, after the game, he followed them all into the Chicago clubhouse and proceeded to let Kuhel know exactly what he thought of the abysmal way the White Sox player had conducted himself – eyeball to eyeball, no blinking or looking away.  And Greenberg was an imposing figure, six-foot-three and 230 pounds of furious muscle.

Kuhel said nothing.  And neither did any of his teammates.

Greenberg had made his points – his backbone was stronger than any of the feeble ones encased in Chicago uniforms that afternoon and that it was a very, very bad idea to test the comparison.

Sadly, he didn’t get much relief from the negativity even in his team’s home environment.  Detroit in the 1930’s was not a place overflowing with progressive thinking.  In fact, one of the city’s most renowned patriarchs – Henry Ford, himself – had published a book called “The International Jew” in which he unceasingly linked the country’s most serious problems to Jewish influence.  It was a marvel of anti-Semitism – if, indeed, such a relentlessly hateful thing could be considered a marvel.

Another prominent citizen of the area, Father Charles Coughlin, took to espousing vicious pro-Nazi “sermons” to as many locals as he could reach and then expanded his operation to national radio broadcasts and a weekly newsletter called, ironically, “Social Justice” – which hadn’t a word of socially acceptable righteousness in it.  At his peak, Coughlin reached 10 million followers a week and discussed among other things how Germany’s infamous “Kristallnacht” attack on Jews in November, 1938 was only a result of Christians having been persecuted first.

So, that was the environment in which Greenberg made his baseball home – the place he returned to after opposing teams and their fans had exacted their toll on his constitution.

Unfortunately, his hardships on the diamond were a sliver of a growing worldwide virus, a menacing epidemic targeting Jewish people for isolation and hate. In fact, Greenberg’s greatest Major League season, 1938, eerily coincided with Hitler’s occupation of Austria and the aforementioned Kristallnacht ugliness.  That occupation, of course, marked the beginning of Germany’s designs on conquering Europe – and beyond – and would eventually lead to one of the most horrific ethnic persecutions in human history.

In the prime years of his baseball career, Greenberg was constantly reminded that enlightenment and tolerance could be slow moving things and that his ethnic group did not get to enjoy their protection.

Still, he just kept hitting baseballs, further and more viciously than ever.  If people were going to taunt him, he was not going to let the vitriol push him off his game.  If anything, he used it to refine his focus, to fuel his desire to quiet them all – like ever more coal powering an unstoppable locomotive.

And if he needed added motivation to weather the difficulties raining on and around him, he received it and more from the Jewish-American community, who adored him.  That adoration had a depth and breadth nearly unequaled in the game’s history.  Other players had been celebrated and revered, but Greenberg had come to symbolize an entire people at a time that they desperately needed someone to be a champion.

And Hank Greenberg was certainly that.

In the prime of his career, he won two MVP awards, led the league in home runs four times, and was the driving force behind two World Series champion teams and two more that came within an eyelash of winning the title.  He had also challenged two of the game’s most hallowed single-season marks – hitting 58 home runs in 1938, two short of Babe Ruth’s record, and driving in 183 runs the year before, one fewer than Lou Gehrig’s American League record total.

More than that, Greenberg shattered stereotypes.  For those who believed that all Jews were from frail and inconsequential stock, that they hid in the shadows making money off of the effort and accomplishments of other, Greenberg provided highly visible proof that such things did not apply to him and, by extension, should not be used as a general context to view anyone Jewish.  So, whenever the hands of prejudice started to push people towards thinking that way, many of them knew of at least one Jewish person who was not any of those things.

He was powerful, resilient, and remarkably dedicated.  In 1940, the Tigers decided to move Greenberg from first base into the outfield to make room for an emerging young slugger named Rudy York, even though Greenberg was a stalwart on the team and had been a major part of its continuous success.  As was his fashion, he accepted the change as a challenge and never complained. Instead, he worked tirelessly at his new position, won the MVP, and led Detroit to the American League pennant.

Mostly, Greenberg was extraordinarily proud to be Jewish.  He accepted his elevated visibility – and the attendant responsibilities – with humility and a profound sense of self-awareness.  Aside from the incident with Joe Kuhel and the rest of the White Sox, he handled himself with exceptional composure, because he knew how many were watching him and how important it was never to give anyone a reason to condemn him – or his people.

When war came for America in 1941, he was among the first Major League players to enlist.  In fact, he had actually re-enlisted.  In his first go-round with the Army, he served in peacetime from October, 1940 and was honorably discharged on December 5, 1941.  The next day, of course, the world changed.

For the next four years, he devoted himself to his military service – four prime years excised from his baseball playing days.  His dedication never wavered, and he never bemoaned all of that lost baseball time.  War had called for him, and he had answered.  It was as simple as that.

When he returned from the service after the war in 1945, he resumed his place among baseball royalty.  But his age was pushing him towards twilight – his brilliant career ebbing.  The atrophy that accumulated from the long layoff hadn’t helped.  Despite that, Greenberg’s championship pedigree couldn’t be denied.  He powered the Tigers down the stretch that season and led them into the playoffs, where Detroit ultimately outlasted the Chicago Cubs for a championship. 

In 1947, he was inexplicably pushed out of Detroit, his bedrock of baseball glory, and traded to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates.  In his final season in the Majors, he put a remarkable finishing touch on his historic place in the game.

In a game against Brooklyn, Greenberg was appalled at the way his teammates were treating the Dodgers’ rookie first baseman.  The vulgarities being directed at the young player sickened him.  When Pittsburgh took the field in the following inning, Greenberg was trying to complete a play at first and collided with Brooklyn’s beleaguered rookie.

As the crowd and his teammates hooted with delight – hoping the veteran would add to the neophyte’s misery – Greenberg extended his hand and helped the young man to his feet.  As the two players stood near first base, Greenberg talked to him at length and the rookie seemed to relax.

After the game, reporters asked the Dodgers’ phenom what Pittsburgh’s elder statesman had said to him.  The young player – a fellow named Jackie Robinson – replied, “He gave me encouragement.  Mr. Greenberg is class.  It stands out all over him.”

From one extraordinary trailblazer to another, words of understanding – words that only the lonely understand who have been made to scale incalculable peaks alone.  Like tigers of the same stripe.

Sources:

“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”, DVD, Directed by Aviva Kempner. The Ciesla Foundation, 1998.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/greenha01.shtml

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/ford.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/holocaust/peopleevents/pandeAMEX96.html

Photos:

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