Being a kid is never easy. Being a kid during the 1930s wasn’t much easier, watching the unfolding events that would eventually lead to war overseas in the newspapers every day. Now imagine being a Jewish kid in the United States watching as the Jews of Europe are being rounded up by the Nazis and forced to work in concentration camps. Although the Nazis weren’t doing the same in the states, the anti-Semitism could be felt across the Atlantic Ocean in the decade leading up to World War II.
America’s anti-Semitism was proven with a 1939 Roper poll that stated only 39 percent of citizens felt Jews should be treated like every one else. Fifty-three percent in the poll said “Jews are different and should be restricted” and 10 percent said Jews should be deported (Wikipedia). Jewish children and adults alike needed a diversion from the horrors in the newspaper, not to mention the personal prejudice they might face on a day-to-day basis.
Fortunately for those Jews in the United States, they could turn their newspapers to the sports section and check the box scores and baseball stories to see how the Detroit Tigers’ Jewish great Hank Greenberg did the day before. In all likelihood, they were greeted with good news.
An ungifted athlete
Greenberg helped the Detroit Tigers to two World Series championships during his career. He also won two MVP awards despite facing tough odds from the beginning. Greenberg was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City on the first day of 1911. Born with flat feet, Greenberg had to work hard to achieve his athleticism. After being recruited by the New York Yankees in 1929, he decided not to join the Bronx Bombers since they already had a quality first baseman in Lou Gehrig. Instead, Greenberg attended New York University for a year before signing with the Tigers the next year.
According to an article by Evan Goldstein in The Jerusalem Report, 5 million Jews passed through Ellis Island between 1880 and 1924; New York’s Jewish population grew from 80,000 to 1,250,000. By 1900, the United States’ Jewish population of 1.5 million trailed only Russia and Austria-Hungary. In 1939, the United States were still two years from entering the war. The German army rolled over Poland and France, and Britain had entered the war.
Just like every one else
In the early 1930s, with the Nazis gaining more and more control in Germany, Greenberg was making his way through the minor leagues where he encountered one of his teammates, Jo-Jo White, walking around and staring at him. When Greenberg asked what he was looking at, his teammate said he’d never seen a Jew before. “The way he said it,” Greenberg said, “he might as well have said, ‘I’ve never seen a giraffe before.’ (Wikipedia) The future Detroit Tiger let him look a little longer before asking if he saw anything interesting. White said, “You’re just like everybody else.”
Taking one for the team
While many common Americans had something to say about the Jews, there weren’t many complaints about one Jew in Detroit through the 1930s. When Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur during the middle of a pennant race in 1934, many fans couldn’t believe their ears. According to the documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Detroit sports writer wrote of Greenberg’s absence, “We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat, but he’s true to his religion-and I honor him for that!” (Kempner).
Greenberg was one of the few rays of sunshine shining through the newspaper headlines for Jews during the 1930s and through most of World War II. In a nation with anti-Semitism around every corner, here was a Jewish athlete being applauded for not doing his job on a Jewish holiday. Not only is he being applauded, but the cheers are coming from the city where Henry Ford made his fortune. Ford was a known anti-Semitism, published his views in the newspaper The Dearborn Independent.
Just 11 years after Babe Ruth blasted 60 home runs in a season, a record that seemed unapproachable; Greenberg launched 58, nearly eclipsing the record. He helped lead the Tigers to American League championships in 1934, 1935, 1940 and 1945. Detroit took home the World Series trophy in 1935 and 1945.
Catcalls gone too far
But it wasn’t all praise Greenberg received during his tenure at Tigers Stadium. According to Tigers’ fan Dr. George Barahal, “I can recall people yelling from the stands, ‘Hey, you kike! You’re not supposed to be able to play ball. You’re just a kike, or a sheeny.’ And, Hank stood proud and tall” (Kempner).
“It was a constant thing,” Greenberg said of the catcalls he heard from the stands years after retiring. “There was always some leather-lung in the stands that was getting on me and yelling at me. I found it was a spur to make me do better because I could never fall asleep on the ball field. As soon as you struck out you were not only a bum, but you were a Jewish bum” (Kempner).
Greenberg wasn’t Major League Baseball’s first Jewish player, but he was its first superstar and he didn’t hide the fact that he was Jewish. Ira Berkow, a sports columnist for the New York Times said many Jews of that time changed their name to hide their background. “There were a number of Jewish players before Hank who had changed their names; and Greenberg didn’t” (Kempner).
Tigers’ fan George Shapiro admired the Tigers’ first basemen for his pride in his tradition. “There was a general aura of anti-Semitism in those days,” Shapiro said. “Along comes Hank Greenberg: the Messiah; a Moses. He was especially important because he wore his Jewishness on his sleeve and in his heart and he never denied that he was Jewish” (Kempner).
A Yankee-hired thug
During the 1934 pennant race between the Tigers and the New York Yankees, the anti-Semitism only seemed to increase as the end of the season neared. Detroit News sports columnist Joe Falls tells of what Greenberg faced when the Tigers faced the Bronx Bombers. “The Yankees, in key games, would go to the minor leagues and bring up some nasty guy just to sit on the bench and get on Hank’s case. He (Greenberg) said, ‘I don’t mind it except that the Italians were called dagos and the Polish players were called Polacks and the Germans were called krauts, and of course, me being a Jew, I was the kike (or a) sheeny, and you can live with that. Except,’ he said, ‘there were a lot of Italians, a lot of Germans, a lot of everything, but only one Jewish ballplayer and they really gave it to me'” (Kempner).
With the Jewish New Year’s holiday nearing in 1934, Greenberg was debating whether or not to play. “The team was fighting for first place and I was probably the only batter in the lineup that was not in a slump,” Greenberg said. “I was literally carrying the club with my hitting.”
Taking one for Detroit’s team
“He didn’t want to let the team down and by the same token, he began to recognize himself as a kind of symbol for the Jewish people,” Joe Greenberg, Hank’s brother said. “So, he really didn’t know how to handle it” (Kempner). According to Tigers’ radio announcer Ernie Harwell, a rabbi in Detroit looked in the Talmud and found a reference to young Jews playing in the streets of Jerusalem during Rosh Hashanah. A headline in a local paper read, “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play” (Kempner).
“We all sat in the synagogue, and the game started,” Tigers’ fan Bert Gordon said. “We all went out to the parking lot and turned on car radios or went to somebody’s house and got a score. When we came in through the side doors, everybody would follow us with their eyes.”
Greenberg’s friend, Harold Allen, recalled the day in synagogue the day Greenberg decided to play and hit two home runs in the Tigers’ 2-1 win over the White Sox. “While the cantor was singing, he would stop for a minute, he says, ‘How’s Hank doing?’ The whole interest of the city of Detroit was Hank Greenberg” (Kempner). On the front of the Detroit Free Press the next day had the headline, “Happy New Year” written in Hebrew.
“Years later, I heard that the rabbi knew that the Talmud really said that it was the Roman children who played on Rosh Hashanah, but the rabbi didn’t tell Hank that part of it,” sports broadcaster Dick Schaap said.
Even the most devout Jews were rooting for Greenberg to play on a Jewish holiday. He was a hero to the millions of Jews in America. He was a spokesman, not through his words, but through his actions. Greenberg never backed down and didn’t complain when things didn’t go his way.
Baseball fans’ anti-Semitism may have shown through clearly in 1935’s All-Star Game. All Stars were chosen based on fan voting as well as the team’s manager. In 1935 the Tigers were coming off of an American League championship and Greenberg was halfway through his first MVP season. In spite of all these accolades, the Tiger great was not chosen as an all star.
A hero to Detroit, the United States and his heritage
Greenberg showed his patriotism to his country in 1940 when he was drafted by the United States military. He was later honorably discharged two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor due to being over the age of 28. He eventually re-enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served overseas in the Republic of China-Burma-India theater, scouting locations for B-29 bases (Wikipedia).
In a time of uncertainty and fear, Hank Greenberg helped lead a nation of Jews to show it was a good thing to be Jewish.