In the second part of our interview with author John Rosengren about his book, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, John discusses the military, his relationship with Jackie Robinson, and his legacy today.
Markusen: We hear a lot about Bob Feller and Ted Williams serving in the military during World War II, but we don’t hear as much about Greenberg. Why do you think that is?
Rosengren: Good question. I honestly don’t know. At the time, there was a lot more attention paid to Greenberg being drafted in early 1941 than to Feller or Williams, who both initially resisted going into the service before America entered the war. Hank, too, had wanted to be able to play the 1941 season before being inducted. He was the reigning American League MVP and the highest paid ballplayer at the time. He knew he had a limited time to make his living in baseball and wanted to be able to maximize his earning potential. When that desire went public, he touched off a national debate that pitted an individual’s right to pursue the American dream in a capitalist society against one’s patriotic duty to answer the call to military service. It also unleashed a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks hurled Greenberg’s way along with accusations that he was a slacker. The controversy got pushed to a higher level when a physician declared Hank’s flat feet rendered him unfit to serve in combat. Though Hank had made no secret about his flat feet, Americans were incredulous that a man could run the bases but not march in the Army. Newspapers across the country spilled plenty of ink on the subject.
Hank’s draft board had another doctor examine Greenberg and, to no surprise, that physician classified him 1-A, fit for active duty. Hank did not resist and was inducted May 7, 1941. Life magazine, the nation’s most popular magazine of the day, devoted a three-page spread to Hank’s induction, and newsreels carried footage of him being outfitted for his uniform, transported to his base and meeting the boys there. It was a major news event.
After Hank received an honorable discharge on December 5, 1941, he was eager to resume his baseball career. Two days later, Pearl Harbor was attacked. “We’re in trouble,” Hank told his friends and re-enlisted. He knew it would be a long war and that his decision likely meant he would never play professional baseball again, but he was willing to make the sacrifice for his country when it needed him.
The move won him widespread admiration, elevated his status from a baseball star to a true American hero, and completed his assimilation from immigrant son to complete citizen.
Taylor Spink praised Greenberg in The Sporting News for his willingness to protect the ideals of American democracy that had allowed for the son of Romanian immigrants to achieve success. Greenberg had become more than a Hebrew star; he had become a national hero who embodied American ideals. Spink gave credit to Hugh Mulcahy for being the first major league ballplayer drafted while the country was still neutral and to Bob Feller for being the first to enlist after the declaration of war. “But the decision announced last week by Hank Greenberg gave the game and the nation a special thrill,” Spink wrote in his editorial. He noted that Hank could have stayed home, said he had already done his bit, but he decided to serve again. “Fans of America, and all baseball, salute him for that decision.”
The New York chapter of the Baseball Writers saluted Greenberg with a special award for his “extraordinary service to baseball” at its annual dinner. “Greenberg’s prompt reenlistment after Pearl harbor constitutes a great favor to baseball,” Tom Meany explained in his New York PM column. “All the pious mouthings of the magnates about In the first month of Robinson’s rookie season, catchers had spat on his shoes, pitchers building up public morale via baseball fail to fool the public. When the highest-paid ballplayer in America voluntarily joins the armed forces, however, it indicates to the fans that ball players are as patriotic as any other profession.”
Markusen: Tell us about Greenberg’s relationship with Jackie Robinson.
Rosengren: Their careers overlapped for a year, when Hank played his final season for the Pirates and Jackie debuted for the Dodgers. In the first month of Robinson’s rookie season, pitchers had thrown at his head and runners had spiked his shins. Opponents yelled nasty slurs from the bench. The St. Louis Cardinals had planned to strike rather than take the field against a Negro player.
Then there had been the letters and phone calls with threats to harm Robinson’s wife, to kidnap his infant son and to kill Jackie. After the threats became public on May 9, Philadelphia players aimed bats like rifles at Robinson and pretended to fire at him. Ben Chapman, the Phillies manager, threatened to fine his pitchers fifty dollars if they didn’t throw at Robinson when they had two strikes on him. Chapman ordered his players to hurl racial taunts at Jackie. They unleashed “a barrage of insults so venomous that Jackie came close to a nervous breakdown.”
So Jackie Robinson was feeling especially vulnerable when the Dodgers arrived in Pittsburgh for a three-game series beginning May 15. That afternoon, Hank Greenberg, the Pirates’ first baseman, was disappointed that his own manager, Billy Herman, had told his pitchers to throw at Robinson if the count ran to three-and-oh and disgusted to hear his Southern teammates shouting, “Hey, coal mine!” and “You dumb black son of a bitch. We’re going to get you!”
Greenberg could identify with Jackie and the abuse heaped upon him. Though the color of his skin didn’t keep Hank out of hotels and restaurants, he knew how it felt to be the subject of widespread scorn. “I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way,” Hank wrote in his autobiography. “Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheeny and Jew all the time.”
In the first game, Robinson bunted and sped for first. Pirates pitcher Ed Bahr fielded the ball but hurried his throw wide of the bag. Hank reached out his mitt and collided with Robinson. The ball eluded Hank. Jackie stumbled and fell. The crowd hushed. Black men were not supposed to smash into white men, especially aging superstars. Many critics of the Robinson experiment anticipated just such a moment to touch off a race riot.
Had the collision involved another white man, say one of Hank’s more vocal Southern teammates or one of the Phillies aiming bats, the anticipated riot probably would have occurred. But Hank showed no sign of anger. He went for the ball. Jackie bounced up and raced to second.
The next inning, Hank walked. “Hope I didn’t hurt you, Jackie,” Hank said to the Dodgers’ first baseman. “I tried to keep out of your way but it was impossible.”
“No, I didn’t get hurt,” said Jackie, surprised yet pleased by Hank’s comment. “I was just knocked off balance and couldn’t stay on my feet.”
“Listen,” Hank said. “I know it’s plenty tough. You’re a good ballplayer, however, and you’ll do all right. Just stay in there and fight back. Always remember to keep your head up.”
Hank’s comments meant a lot to Jackie, especially coming when they did. “I found out that not all the guys on the other teams are bad heels,” he said. “I think Greenberg, for instance, is pulling for me to make good.”
When Robinson told others about the incident, he concluded, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”
The moment burnished Greenberg’s reputation as a hero for the way he conducted himself. Other Jews happily identified with him. Regarding Hank’s encounter with Jackie, Milton K. Susman wrote in his Jewish Criterion column, “Nothing that Greenberg says or does the rest of his life will make this corner prouder that he is a Jew.”
And, of course, what Greenberg did for Robinson in that moment gave Jackie the strength to carry on and complete his courageous civil rights initiative on the ballfield, one still celebrated more than half a century later.
Markusen: In reading Bill Veeck’s book, he seemed to think highly of Greenberg, who served as his GM with the Indians. Do you think Greenberg is underrated as an executive?
Rosengren: The Cleveland press was hard on Greenberg during his tenure as GM of the Indians (1950-57). Other than one pennant in 1954, his team was a perennial bridesmaid to the Yankee dynasty. Cleveland scribes criticized him for trading players like Minnie Minoso, Mickey Vernon, and Larry Doby. Greenberg did have thin skin and often held a grudge. Coupled with his lack of tact, he did not make many friends among the Cleveland press, which only made matters worse for him. At the same time, he was an astute judge of talent, promoting Al Rosen and signing Roger Maris (after talking him out of accepting a scholarship to play college football). In all, I think Greenberg was a better executive than others gave him credit for being.
At the time, others outside Cleveland thought the same. After the Indians’ board of directors fired Greenberg in 1957, Jimmy Cannon berated the directors’ “cowardice” and “stupidity.” Bernard Kahn, sports editor of the Daytona Beach Evening News, called out the elephant in the living room: “They fired Hank because the Cleveland sportswriting militia — perhaps the most vicious in the country — kept sniping at Hank’s heels and encouraged the more rabid fans to fang him.”
Hank’s release became baseball’s loss. The Sporting News commented that he was “the type of thoughtful, energetic leader which the pastime cannot well spare.” For instance, thinking games lasted too long (over two hours when his Tigers had finished many of theirs in 1:30 or 1:45), he had used a Jeep to hustle relief pitchers in from the bullpen, and even offered the players a $100 bonus for every game they won in less than two hours. He advocated for a baseball draft like the NFL’s, where the worst teams would have first pick of the best amateur talent to equalize the league. He also proposed that second division teams be exempt from the trading deadline to bolster sagging fan interest late in the season. He pushed for the American League to expand to 10 teams. He spoke out against the fallacy of the reserve clause. He was one of the first to champion interleague play to give fans the chance to see the stars of the other circuit. He was “outstanding as a general manager and progressive as baseball executive, perhaps even ahead of his time,” Don Wolfe, Toledo Blade sports editor, wrote. Time would prove Wolfe right. For instance, Bud Selig credits Greenberg for the inspiration to implement interleague play.
Markusen: If you were to summarize Greenberg’s legacy in a few words, how would you do it?
Rosengren: Hank Greenberg remains the greatest Jewish baseball player — nay, athlete — of all-time. No other Jew has achieved his athletic prowess and cultural significance. He not only batted his way into the Hall of Fame, he showed Jews the way to assimilate and elevated their esteem among their gentile peers. “It’s arguable that Hank Greenberg is the most important American Jew to have ever been,” baseball scholar Rabbi Michael Paley declares without hyperbole.
Hank’s story delivers lessons still relevant today. “Greenberg’s experience told the American public that we should challenge our stereotypes, that anyone can participate in sports,” says Miller, director of Jews and Baseball. “When America operates properly, it is the story of immigrants coming here, overcoming bigotry, stereotypes and poverty and becoming part of the mainstream. Greenberg’s influence is a way of helping America understand the humanity of newcomers and helping Americans overcome the bigotry each new group that comes here faces.”
Hank Greenberg became a national hero during a dark time. His legacy shines a light for all Americans to follow.
Markusen: John Rosengren’s acclaimed new book, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, is available from NAL and can be purchased at Amazon.com
Miss Part One of Bruce’s interview with John Rosengren? Read it here.