For more than 100 years baseball has measured stars by a set of standards. The .300 batting average, 200 hits, 20 wins, 100 runs batted in. Home run levels have risen and fallen over the years (mostly skyrocketing), but when it comes to being a run producer, the magical 100-mark of RBI has continued to be a milestone.
Last season two Tigers: Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, reached the 100-RBI mark. The two sluggers have made that habit, but when Cabrera drove in 139 runs in 2012, as impressive as it was, the figure was more than 40 fewer than that of a legendary Detroit slugger. In 1937, Hank Greenberg drove in an amazing 183 runs, a Tigers record that will probably stand forever.
A quick dissection of Greenberg’s ’37 season illustrates how amazing it was. The big right-handed slugger, the first Jewish superstar in baseball, punished the opposition by plating runners at a feverish pace all year long. To drive in 183 runs, you can’t have a slump, and Hammerin’ Hank didn’t have one in 1937.
back then the season started later in April, so Greenberg only saw action in six games in that first month, but he drove in six runs. In May he drove in an incredible 42 runs in 31 games. In one stretch he drove in at least one run in 15 of 16 games, and he had two streaks of driving in at least two runs in four straight games. The Tigers only managed to go 16-15 that month, even though their first baseman hit .378 with 22 extra-base hits and a .756 slugging percentage. In June, Greenberg’s average slipped all the way to .311 but he still drove in 20 runs in 25 games, clubbing seven home runs. As the weather got warmer in July, Hank’s bat got red-hot. He batted .396 in July and drove in 37 runs in just 26 games. Though he was hitting .340 with 18 homers and 74 RBI at the All-Star break, Hank was not selected to start the All-Star Game. That honor went to Lou Gehrig of the New York Yankees, and in fact, Hank never saw action in the contest.
As if he felt a little slighted by the All-Star Game snub, Greenberg improved his run production in the second half of the season. In August he drove in 39 runs, topping the 100-RBI mark on July 28 at Yankee Stadium. For the month of August, Greenberg hit .348 with 46 hits in 32 games, including 14 doubles and seven homers. Before playing a single game in September, Hank had 143 RBI and 40 doubles. He had scored runs himself too, plating more than 100 runs with a month to go. In September and three games in October, though his batting average slipped, Greenberg was still an RBI machine, driving in 40 runs in 34 games and hitting 10 homers – his highest total for any stretch of that campaign. On October 1, Greenberg hit a double and two homers against the St. Louis Browns and drove in six runs, a game high for the season. He had 181 RBI with two games left and trailed Gehrig’s American League record by just three.
In the next to the last game of the season at Navin Field against the Cleveland Indians, Hank went 0-for-4 but picked up an RBI with a groundout that scored a teammate from third base. The next day, Greenberg came to the plate in the first inning with teammate Pete Fox hopping off second base after a double. Greenberg lined a single to left field to score him, giving Hank his 183rd RBI. That proved to be the lone run scored in that game as the Tigers wrapped up the season with a 1-0 victory over the Tribe. Greenberg, with 183 RBI had fallen one short of tying the AL mark set by Gehrig in 1931.
But had he?
In 2011, Herm Krabbenhoft, a baseball researcher in Detroit, found a scoring mistake in the historical record that robbed Greenberg of an RBI in ’37. According to Krabbenhoft’s research, Hank’s 1937 RBI total should be 184 – equal to Gehrig’s, and an AL record.
But not so fast.
A year later, just last summer, Krabbenhoft found a mistake that cost Gehrig an RBI in his ’31 season. (Krabbenhoft is a diligent rascal, isn’t he?) So, Gehrig’s total should be adjusted to 185, keeping him one RBI ahead of Greenberg. Major League Baseball has yet to rule officially on the matter, which probably isn’t surprising since they are hesitant to alter a mark anyway, and in this case the final outcome would be the same – The Iron Horse one RBI ahead of Hammerin’ Hank.
Whether Greenberg drove in 194 or 183 runs in 1937, the fact remains that Detroit’s Hall of Fame slugger had a season for the ages more than 75 years ago.