Over the weekend I had the chance to see an airing of the 1998 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg on Detroit public television. The film does an excellent job portraying the life of a baseball superstar complicated by social and political events in the 1930s and 1940s.
One of the film’s featured commentators was Alan Dershowitz, who said Hank Greenberg was the most important Jew in the world in the 1930s because he exploded Hitler’s propaganda myths about the physical superiority of Aryans. Greenberg stood 6’4″ and in 1938 Greenberg finished the season with 58 home runs, making a remarkable run at the home run record of Babe Ruth.
During that decade Greenberg thought of himself as hitting “home runs against Hitler.” But in 1941, Greenberg traded in his bats for bullets, serving in the armed forces between 1941-1944 during WWII.
While he was not particularly observant religiously, the film does a good job of showing how important Greenberg’s Jewish identity became to him as his career wore on, as his prominent standing within the local, national, and global Jewish communities increased along with his accomplishments on the field.
“Hank Greenberg was a great hero in Detroit, especially to the Jewish population,” said Tigers Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell.
In a strange twist of fate, the still-productive Greenberg was traded before his final season from the Detroit Tigers to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was present for Jackie Robinson’s entry into the majors. Greenberg and Robinson faced each other on the field, and Greenberg was able to give Robinson words of encouragement in the face of virulent racism.
In seeing the hatred that Robinson faced Greenberg was able to relativize the powerful anti-Semitism he had faced in his own breakthrough to the major leagues. Greenberg felt that after his feats on the field of baseball and the field of battle that it was only after WWII that the question of his ethnic and religious identity was pushed to the background. He had finally become simply a baseball player…and he hopefully predicted that Jackie Robinson would one day come to achieve that recognition as well.
As we mark the beginning of baseball season this week in 2007, it’s a good opportunity to remember the contributions of Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg on the baseball field and to the cause of social and religious tolerance in the modern world.
Greenberg was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, and in just nine full seasons finished with a career batting average of .313, along with 331 home runs and 1276 RBI.
Tiger great Hal Newhouser said of Greenberg that if he had to pick one batter to drive in a run in a crucial situation, he would pick Hank Greenberg over greats like Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Unless, of course, the batter would be facing Greenberg’s arch-nemesis, the great Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller!