On the day that what would have been his 102nd birthday, I am going talk about one of the most overlooked Hall of Famers, Hank Greenberg. He was one of the top sluggers of the 1930s and 40s while living as a proud Jew during the height of anti-Semitism and in a city, Detroit, where it was even more common. There were Jews who played in the majors before Greenberg, but none at his level and some even changed their name to hide their heritage.
Jews were always thought to be destined for jobs such as lawyers, doctors and such. Never to excel in field of athletics. Greenberg changed that forever and many Jewish kids looked up to him for that. He constantly was ridiculed by fans with religious slurs and even by opposing players also. The New York Yankees were known to call up players from minors just to taunt Greenberg. This all made him want to work harder and not let his fans down.
Late in the 1934 season and in the middle of a pennant race, he further endeared himself to the Jewish community when he announced that he would not play on Rosh Hashanah(Sept 10-Jewish New Year) or Yom Kippur(Sept 19-Day of Atonement). After discussing his situation with a rabbi, he ended up playing on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur.
For the 1938 season, Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth's prestigious season home run record of 60. He had 58 with five games to go. Many believe he was pitched around and never had a chance to break the record because baseball didn't want a Jew to hold the home run record. He ended with 58. Greenberg, himself, denied these allegations.
After missing four years for fighting in World War II, he came back and led the Tigers to their 4th pennant and 2nd World Series title during Greenberg's tenure in Detroit. But prior the 1947(his last) season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Coincidentally, it was the same season that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier while playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Greenberg saw what Robinson was going through and offered his help to Robinson in anyway he can.
Upon his retirement, he worked in the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox front offices. While helping these teams become winners, Greenberg was known to sign many Negro league players. In addition to his help in equality, Greenberg was on the forefront in player labor issues. He was one of the leaders in establishing the players' pension plan and also was a witness for Curt Flood's lawsuit against MLB's reserve clause, which helped make free agency possible.
So, when you watch your favorite teams play now and see a Jew play a prominent role, please stop and think Hank Greenberg helped to make it possible. Also, if you come across the dvd, "Life and Times of Hank Greenberg", I would recommend viewing it to learn more about Hammerin Hank.