Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg, the “Hebrew Hammer,” was a hero to thousands of fans – and not just for his astounding ability to hit the ball.
Born in New York to immigrant parents in 1911, Hank was a standout athlete in high school. He was recruited by the Yankees at only 18 years old, but instead chose to attend New York University. In 1933 he joined the Detroit Tigers, and found that most of his fellow players had never met a Jew. Some were surprised he didn’t have horns.
Hank faced loud and constant anti-Semitic heckling when he played. He said it was “a spur to make me do better, because I could never fall asleep on the ball field.”
One of Hank’s proudest moments was when he hit a grand slam in the 9th inning against the St Louis Browns, and he later heard that one of the opposing players had said, “God damn that son of a bitch Jew bastard, he beat us again!”
In 1934, Hank made national news when he refused to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – even though the Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race. Hank’s principled choice led to a famous poem by Tigers fan Edgar Guest which ends, “We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat/ But he’s true to his religion – and we honor him for that!”
Hank came back the next day and hit a home run that clinched the pennant for the Tigers.
As Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1930’s, Hank’s Jewish identity became a source of pride to many American Jews. Hank’s son Stephen later said that his father felt that “every time he would hit a home run, he would feel doubly proud because he felt like he was hitting a home run against Hitler.”
In 1940, Hank volunteered to register for the draft, and in 1941 he was inducted into the U.S. Army. Hank served 47 months, the longest of any major league player. After being discharged from the Army in 1945, Hank went back to the Tigers and played two more years.
Hank’s last season in 1947 was Jackie Robinson’s first. The first black player to break the major league baseball color line, Jackie endured even more vicious heckling than Hank had. They met on the ball field during a game, when Jackie reached first base and Hank was the first baseman. Hank took that moment to say a few encouraging words to Jackie. He helped the younger player keep his morale up during a challenging rookie year. Jackie Robinson later said, “Hank Greenberg is class – it stands out all over him.”
Hank retired from the field after that season, and became General Manager of the Cleveland Indians. During his tenure, he recruited more African-American players than any other major league executive.
In later life Hank said, “When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period… Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”
Hank Greenberg died in 1986, three years after his number 5 was retired by the Detroit Tigers. His lifetime batting average was .313.
For being a mensch on and off the field, we honor baseball legend Hank Greenberg as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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