A fun pastime this time of year, while ballparks lie dormant, is comparing today’s stars with the greats of yesteryear. We all know what Miguel Cabrera did this year for Detroit — Triple Crown, American League MVP, Hitter of the Year, and MLB MVP (the last two are Greatness in Baseball Yearly Awards, or GIBBY, as voted by the fans).
But, and no disrespect to Prince Fielder who had a fine season, what if Detroit had signed Hank Greenberg, instead of Fielder, to play first base and hit behind Cabrera? Would Detroit have brought home the championship?
Not much is remembered today about Henry Benjamin “Hank” Greenberg. “Hammerin’ Hank” or “The Hebrew Hammer,” played first base for the Tigers in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the premier power hitters of his generation, Greenberg was elected to the Hall of Fame in1956. His majestic swing, rendered in bronze, is nestled between Ty Cobb and Charlie Gehringer, just beyond the left-center field wall at Comerica Park.
First scouted by the New York Yankees in 1929, who already had a capable first baseman in Lou Gehrig, Greenberg turned down a Yankee offer and attended New York University for a year, after which he signed with Detroit for $9,000.
Greenberg would go on to have a Hall of Fame career, hitting 58 home runs in 1938, equaling Jimmie Foxx’s 1932 mark for most home runs in one season by any player between 1927 (when Babe Ruth hit 60) and 1961 (when Roger Maris hit 61).
A five-time All-Star, Greenberg was twice named the American League’s MVP. He was the first major leaguer to hit 25 or more home runs in a season in each league, and he holds the American League record for most RBI in a single season by a right-handed hitter — an incredible 183 in 1937. What makes this statistic so remarkable is that he accomplished it over a 154-game schedule. Only left-handed hitter Lou Gehrig drove in more runs in an AL season — 184, in 1931.
Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in American sports. Yet as great as he was on the field, he was as great a gentleman and spokesperson for the game. Having endured anti-Semitic slurs throughout his career, he was one of the few players who publicly welcomed Jackie Robinson to the majors in 1947.
In 1934, with the Tigers in the middle of a pennant race, Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur. Detroit Free Press columnist and poet Edgar A. Guest wrote a poem, “Speaking of Greenberg,” which ended, “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.”
When he was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, Greenberg became the first ballplayer to earn more than $80,000 in a single year. In addition to his $100,000 Pittsburgh salary, his Tigers contract called for $25,000 in severance in the event they sold or traded him.
Greenberg appeared in four World Series between 1934 and 1945, all with Detroit, during which he hit .318 with a .420 OBP and .624 SLG, hitting five home runs and driving in 22 runs.
With those numbers, it’s a cinch the Tigers, with Hammerin’ Hank hitting behind Cabrera, would not have been swept by the San Francisco Giants in 2012. Actually, it’s quite possible the Tigers could’ve won it all.