In 1936, for the first time in history, the Detroit Tigers were defending World Series champions. Their roster was loaded, including four future Hall of Famers, two of the best pitchers in the game, and a stable of experienced veterans who had been through the pennant race.
The Tigs most feared batsman was Henry Benjamin Greenberg, better known as “Hank” to his teammates, and “The Hammer” to his adoring fans. Just 25 years old in ’36, Greenberg had led the league in runs batted in and home runs in ’35, for which he had been named the American League Most Valuable Player. But even though he was so honored, Greenberg still suffered from the stigma attached to being a Jewish player.
Antisemitism wasn’t exactly uncommon in America during the 1930s. Charles Coughlin, a catholic priest based in Royal Oak, Michigan, had little problem finding sponsors for his weekly radio show on which he blasted his antisemitic rhetoric to more than 9 million listeners. Coughlin’s newspaper was delivered to more than 800,000 subscribers each week. When the U.S. Government agreed to accept some Jewish refugees from Germany in the mid-1930s, Coughlin responded with hate. “Send the Jews back where they came from in leaky boats,” he blurted. Automobile magnate Henry Ford, the patriarch of Detroit’s largest company, was a notorious anti-semite, and once wrote: “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words — too much Jew.”
Amid antisemitism that was so overt, Greenberg plied his trade as one of the top professional athletes in the country. It wasn’t always pleasant. When he first debuted, Greenberg faced insults and slurs from fans, opposing players, and even teammates. To compound the torture, Greenberg was a large man – six feet three inches tall and over 210 pounds, very large for his time. He stood out not only as a Jewish man, but as a giant one. Several years before Jackie Robinson toiled under the strain of facing racial slurs, Greenberg faced similar opposition every time he stepped on the diamond. The pressure, Greenberg explained, was difficult.
“How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son-of-a-bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get [sent] on your ass without feeling the pressure? If the ballplayers weren’t doing it, the fans were. I used to get frustrated as hell. Sometimes I wanted to go into the stands and beat the shit out of them.”
But Greenberg never did get into a fight over racial prejudice. But early in 1936 he was targeted by an opposing player and the incident resulted in Hank missing most of the season. Greenberg was off to a fantastic start for the defending World Champs in ’36, hitting .348 with nine extra-base hits and 16 RBI in the first 12 games. On April 29, the Tigers squared off against the Senators in Washington. Jake Powell, the Senators center fielder, came to the plate in the 8th inning and bounced a grounder between first and second. As he headed down the base path, Powell took off for Greenberg and collided with the big first sacker, spiking Hank and sending both players tumbling as the ball went one direction and they went another. When the dust settled, Hank had a broken wrist, the result of a dirty play. He would miss the remainder of the season. The Tigers were just a half game out of first when Greenberg was hurt, but a week later they were 4 1/2 games back and never got closer. Without “The Hammer,” they finished a distant second to the Yankees.
Powell never apologized for the incident, which he claimed was an accident, but many who saw the play knew that he had meant to spike and run over Greenberg. A few years later, during a pregame radio interview, Powell was asked what he did during the off-season. He explained that he was a part-time police officer (which was untrue) and that to stay in shape he “cracked niggers over the head with [his] nightstick.” A few days later, Powell was suspended for 10 games.
Greenberg returned in 1937 and socked 40 home runs while driving in an amazing 183 runs. The next season he challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season homer mark, coming up two short with 58 (some claimed that Hank may have been victim to antisemitism and that select hurlers pitched around him). In 1940, at his physical peak, Hank paced the AL in homers and RBI, led the Tigers to another pennant, and captured his second MVP Award. When the U.S. was forced into World War II, Greenberg was the first star to enlist in the Army. By that time he had done much to dispel the myth that Jewish athletes were weak and lacked courage.
What the proud Greenberg always wanted more than anything during his playing career was to be treated like anyone else – no worse, no better. Later, after he reflected a bit, Hank realized that being one of the first Jewish superstars was a part of his legacy.
“When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer,” Greenberg told author Lawrence Ritter in the 1960s. “I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”