Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy 100th, Hank Greenberg: 1911-2011

Like just about everybody, I missed a major milestone. I don't know who else is ashamed of missing it, but I am.

On January 1, 1911, Henry Benjamin Greenberg was born in Manhattan. He grew up in The Bronx, attended James Monroe High School, and starred as a first baseman with the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1940 (plus a one-game call-up in 1930), went off to serve in the U.S. Army, returned for 1945 and 1946 before one last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947.

The original "Hammerin' Hank" (a name later given to Henry Aaron) succeeded his idol, Lou Gehrig, as the game's most feared first baseman. He led the Tigers to the 1934 American League Pennant, in spite of missing a game on September 19 because it was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Tigers lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but beat the Chicago Cubs in the following year's Series. Greenberg was named AL Most Valuable Player in 1935.

In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, equalling Jimmie Foxx's 1932 performance as the most that anyone would hit in the majors between 1927 and 1961 -- and as the most any right-handed hitter as ever hit in Major League Baseball without steroids. In 1940, with the Tigers having obtained Rudy York, who couldn't play any position but first, Greenberg moved to left field, helped the Tigers win another Pennant (they lost the Series to the Cincinnati Reds), and became the first player ever to be named MVP at 2 different positions (a feat since matched only by Robin Yount).

He returned from service in World War II in time to rejoin the Tigers for the Pennant drive, hitting a grand slam on the final day of the season to clinch. Again, the Tigers played the Cubs, and again they won. A bad back convinced Greenberg to retire after the '46 season, but the Pirates asked him to come back, so he could tutor their young slugger Ralph Kiner. They offered him baseball's first $100,000 a year salary. He took it on the condition that it be his last season. Kiner never forgot Greenberg's kindness.

Nor did Jackie Robinson, whose first season was Greenberg's last. Facing anti-Semitism on a greater scale than any player ever had, Greenberg was the one player who could, and did, truthfully say to modern baseball's first black player, "I know what you're going through."

On May 17, 1947, when the Pirates played the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson laid down a bunt, and in his effort to reach first base collided with Greenberg. Neither man was hurt. Later in the game, Greenberg walked, and, as Robinson was also playing first that season (moving to second the next year), they had a chance to talk:

Greenberg, then: "Don't pay attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there... I hope you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I've learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier."

Robinson, to the press after the game: "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."

Despite being just short of 37 years old, due to his injury Greenberg did indeed retire after the 1947 season. Lifetime batting average: .331. OPS+: 158. Hits: 1,628, including 379 doubles (including 63, 4 off the all-time record, in 1934) and 331 home runs (including the 58 in 1938). RBIs: 1,276 (including 183 in 1937, one off Gehrig's AL record). All this in what amounted to just 10 full seasons. If he'd been exempt from military service and had been able to play until he was 40, he would have had about 600 home runs, might have collected 3,000 hits, and perhaps joined Ruth and Aaron as the only men with 2,000 RBIs.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed him at Number 37 on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, in spite of his abbreviated career. In his book Ted Williams' Hit List, Williams named his Top 20 Hitters, and he put Greenberg at Number 11. Whether he was ranked that high (ahead of Tris Speaker and Mickey Mantle) due to peak value or to their friendship, I don't know. But Ted always said Hank was a wonderful guy.

Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, offered him a front-office position, and together they helped make the Indians the 1948 World Champions. Greenberg tutored another young slugger, a Jewish one like himself, third baseman Al Rosen. When Veeck sold the team, the new owners kept Greenberg, promoting him to general manager, and another Pennant-winner was built in 1954. When Veeck bought the Chicago White Sox, he brought in Greenberg as a part-owner, and another Pennant-winner was built in 1959.

That was Greenberg's last job in organized baseball, although his son Steve later played in the minors, not making it to the majors due to injury. Steve later founded Classic Sports Network, bought by ESPN and turned into ESPN Classic, one of the great treasures of American broadcasting.

In one of the weirdest occurrences in baseball history, Hank Greenberg, Ralph Kiner and Al Rosen all retired sooner than they could have due to bad backs. It didn't keep Greenberg out of the Hall of Fame: He was elected in 1956. It almost kept Kiner out: He was elected in 1975, his 15th and last year of eligibility under the baseball writers' vote. It has, thus far, kept Rosen out, although he later went on to become, like Greenberg, one of baseball's finest executives, building postseason teams in New York (the 1978 World Champion Yankees), Houston (the 1986 National League Western Division Champion Astros) and San Francisco (the 1989 NL Champion Giants).

Greenberg never hesitated to speak of his admiration for his heroes, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, his teammate and manager in Detroit Mickey Cochrane, and, even though he was several years younger, Jackie Robinson. As Jackie said, class tells: Men such as Robinson, Williams, Kiner and Rosen (the last 2 still alive at this writing) spent the rest of their lives telling of Greenberg's hitting talent and his great decency.

Hank Greenberg moved to Beverly Hills and kept active, winning an age-group tennis tournament in his 70s. He died of cancer on September 4, 1986, at age 75. He lived long enough to see the Tigers retire his Number 5 and win 2 more World Series, in 1968 and 1984.

He deserved to be remembered on his 100th birthday. I did find a few Internet mentions of it. I wish I had remembered last Saturday, though, on the actual anniversary. Hank didn't seem like the type of man to hold it against us, though.

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