Greenberg's rookie season honored
Baseball Hall of Fame holds 75th anniversary celebration
Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson are often heralded as ethnic pioneers in baseball history, but Hank Greenberg is rarely afforded similar treatment. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum made efforts to change that on Sunday by holding a 75th anniversary celebration of Greenberg's rookie season -- 1933 -- in the Major Leagues. The daylong event included an in-depth panel discussion, video tributes from teammates and an airing of a critically acclaimed Greenberg documentary.
As part of his introductory remarks, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson praised Greenberg as a man and player who "rarely gets his due." Historian Martin Abramowitz, one of six scholars who participated in the panel discussion, described Greenberg as the "first Jewish baseball star." Greenberg was one of the earliest Jews to play in the major leagues, following Andy Cohen, who became the first Jewish player in 1926.
A two-time American League MVP, Greenberg hit 331 home runs during a career that was shortened by four and a half years of service in World War II. The All-Star first baseman slugged .605 for his career, played in four World Series, won two world championships and gained induction to the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Just as significantly, Greenberg emerged as a role model for younger Jewish athletes at a time when anti-Semitism raged throughout America and Europe. As baseball historian Bill Simons of the State University of New York at Oneonta explained to the nearly 70 fans gathered in the Hall's Grandstand Theater, Greenberg played his first full season with the Detroit Tigers in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
"There was rising anti-Semitism that was rampant throughout the United States," said Simons, who also serves as the director of the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, which is held annually at the Hall of Fame. "There was also violence in Detroit, in the form of union unrest that resulted in labor strikes and bloody confrontations."
Adding to the mix was Detroit's ethnic composition. According to Simons, the Jewish population in Detroit was only five percent at the time, compared with a 30 percent level in New York City.
Greenberg's ascent to the Major Leagues in the early 1930s seems to have been a product of work ethic more than physical ability.
"He wasn't so much a natural athlete, but he practiced, and practiced," offered Aviva Kempner, a filmmaker who produced the acclaimed documentary, 'The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg', which aired later in the day at the Hall of Fame. "He was the son of Romanian parents, who were Orthodox, and he grew up in Greenwich Village. He broke ranks with what his parents expected of him. He didn't last a semester at NYU because he wanted to play ball."
In September 1934, Greenberg made headlines when he decided to play on Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, at a time when the Tigers were vying for the American League pennant. Greenberg hit two home runs that day, as he helped the Tigers to a critical victory on their way to clinching first place in the AL. But just a few days later, Greenberg chose not to play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
"When Greenberg walked into the synagogue that day, everyone applauded," said Kempner. "I think it was even more of a bold move than Sandy Koufax sitting out the first game of the World Series [because of Yom Kippur in 1965]."
Greenberg played in the World Series in both 1934 and '35, subjecting himself to some of the most intense anti-Semitism of his entire career.
"In the 1935 World Series, the bench jockeying by the Cubs was so vicious that the home-plate umpire, George Moriarty, warned the Cubs' dugout to stop," explained Ira Berkow, a Pulitzer Prize winning author with the New York Times and a biographer of Greenberg. "They wouldn't stop, so Moriarty came back again and cleared the bench. Later on, I talked to Phil Cavarretta, who was a 19-year-old Cub at the time, and he confirmed that they were anti-Semitic remarks coming from the dugout. Later on, Hank told me that they were the kind of anti-Semitic remarks that he had heard every single day of his career, whether it coming was coming from the opposing dugout or the stands."
While Berkow emphasized the level of hatred that Greenberg faced as a Jewish American, he says there is no validity to rumors that American League pitchers intentionally conspired to keep him from tying or breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938.
"There was a lunch arranged for me and Hank," Berkow said. "The first thing I asked him was about that, whether the pitchers kept walking him [because of anti-Jewish sentiment]. He said to me, 'Absolutely not. They walked all the sluggers back then. Most of the other players were for me [breaking the record]. Some of the umpires, too.' "
Alva Greenberg, Hank's daughter and the youngest of his three children, also participated in Sunday's panel discussion. As she explained, her father didn't often discuss his baseball career after his playing days.
"He lived his life in the present," said the younger Greenberg. "He was interested in things like the stock market and tennis. He didn't talk much about his past in baseball."
After each of the panelists spoke about Greenberg, the Hall of Fame aired video tributes from two of his living teammates. One featured former Tigers pitcher Virgil Trucks, who played with Greenberg during the 1940s. The other video carried a message from Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, a teammate of Greenberg during Hank's final Major League season in 1947, when he wrapped up his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Greenberg died at the age of 75 in 1986, shortly after Berkow agreed to author his biography.
"He had already told his stories into a Dictaphone," explained Berkow. "He had compiled them on tape. When I became involved in the project, he was ill -- dying of cancer. I was supposed to visit him in California. I got a call from Steve, his son, who said he that was too ill and couldn't do it. Well, I had about 25 questions that I wanted to ask Hank. So I gave them to Steve to ask him.
"Hank was such a fervent competitor that he answered all of them. Steve believes that he kept himself alive for a week just to answer those questions that I had given him."
News and Notes: The four Major League teams with which Greenberg is associated also plan to commemorate the 75th anniversary on Sunday. The Tigers and Pirates (with whom he played), along with the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians (where he served as a front office executive) plan to honor Greenberg during pregame ceremonies. ... The Greenberg celebration was sponsored by Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., which also sponsored the two-day "Celebration of American Jews in Baseball," an event held at the Hall of Fame in 2004. ... Former Yankees public relations director Marty Appel moderated the panel discussion. A longtime executive with the Topps Company, Appel has authored 15 books, including biographies of Hall of Famers Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Tom Seaver and Bowie Kuhn. ... The next special event at the Hall of Fame will take place this Friday, the Fourth of July, when retired attorney Mel Marmer discusses the link between baseball and U.S. presidents.
Bruce Markusen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.