Hank Greenberg was only 23 years old. For Detroit’s six-foot-three, 210-pound first baseman, however, 1934 was proving to be a breakout season. His parents, both Romanian-born Jews, meant to name him Hyman. The story goes that the fellow who filled out his birth certificate had never heard of such a name, and simply wrote in “Henry.” When Greenberg’s family moved from New York’s Greenwich Village to the Bronx, he suddenly found himself living across the street from Crotona Park, a 127-acre municipally owned oasis where young Henry spent countless hours playing baseball with the other neighborhood kids.
Greenberg’s best sport at James Monroe High School was basketball, but he was good enough at baseball that the New York Yankees were hot on his trail. Owner Jacob Ruppert was always on the lookout for a great Jewish player, fully aware of the boost in attendance it would provide, given the city’s large Jewish population. Scout Paul Krichell invited a teenaged Greenberg to a box seat at Yankee Stadium, where the youngster got an up-close view of Lou Gehrig (whom Krichell had signed years ago) in the on-deck circle. Greenberg was a Giants fan, but Krichell, ever the salesman, leaned closer to him and whispered, “He’s all washed up. In a few years, you’ll be the Yankee first baseman.”
Things did not work out that way, however, but it may have been for the better. With Gehrig entrenched at first base, Greenberg would have had little chance of playing in the Bronx. He signed with Detroit instead, and quickly established himself as a rising star within the organization. A solid first season with the Raleigh Capitals and Hartford Senators earned him a promotion to Detroit for the final three weeks of 1930. He quickly found out that he was not welcome by all. He was subjected to Jew-baiting from the opposition, and even certain of his teammates did not take kindly to having a Jew on the club. Year later, Greenberg recounted how Phil Page, an infinitely expendable young Tigers pitcher, called him a “goddamn Jew” after Greenberg hit him on the knee with a line drive in batting practice. In the face of the taunts, Greenberg found support from other teammates, particularly Schoolboy Rowe. Billy Rogell, himself a well-known hard-ass who refused to take crap from anybody, also encouraged the youngster. “Go out and outplay the bastards,” he once told him.
After two more years of minor league seasoning, including 39 homers at Beaumont in 1932, Greenberg made the Tigers’ squad out of spring training in 1933. He had a fine rookie campaign, batting .301 and driving in 85 runs. With only 12 home runs, he was still a raw-boned kid, and had yet to perfect the power stroke that would make him famous. Greenberg entered the 1934 season determined to improve both his power hitting and his fielding; he did both. He emerged as the Tigers’ biggest home-run threat, and by the end of August had already topped the century mark in RBIs. The countless hours of infield practice had begun to pay dividends. “Have you been watching big Greenberg around first?” asked [manager Mickey] Cochrane. “He’s the most improved first baseman in the league.”
Now, with the season entering the final stretch, Greenberg faced a dilemma: Would it be proper for him, as a Jew, to suit up and play on September 10, which was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? Additionally, what about September 19, which was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement? According to tradition, Jews were to spend the day in solemn prayer with God, refraining from work, and certainly not cavorting on a baseball diamond. The answer had been relatively easy in 1933; with Detroit buried in fifth place and not much to play for, Greenberg had no qualms about sitting out those two days. This year, with the Yankees breathing down Detroit’s neck, it would be more problematic for Greenberg to announce that he was going to take two games off because of his Jewish faith.
In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the debate became a national story. Should he play, or should he pray? Greenberg was hearing it from all corners, some saying he should abide by the tenets of his faith and stay at home, while others argued that the Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race; taking a seat on the bench would hurt the team when it needed him most.
One prominent Detroit rabbi was asked his views. “Mr. Greenberg,” he wrote, “who is a conscientious Jew, must decide for himself. From the standpoint of Orthodox Judaism, the fact that ballplaying is his means of living would argue against (playing). On the other hand, it might be argued quite consistently that his taking part in the game would mean something not only to himself but to his fellow players and, in fact at this time, to the community of Detroit.” Greenberg knew that no matter what decision he made, there would be criticism. “I was in a terrible fix.”
At Navin Field on September 9, the day before Rosh Hashanah, Greenberg came to bat in the tenth inning of a tie game with the Red Sox. Gehringer was on second, Rogell on first, with one out. Over 28,000 fans erupted as Greenberg laced a single over second, scoring Gehringer. The Tigers had themselves a 5-4 win, with Rowe going the distance for his 22nd victory. Detroit’s offense was clicking: The entire lineup, including Rowe, entered the game with a plus-.300 batting average. New York swept a doubleheader over the Browns, so despite the Tigers’ victory, their lead was down to four games. Greenberg, Detroit’s big gun, was now batting .376 in his last 25 games, with 19 RBIs, and an on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of 1.066.
The Tigers were leaving to Greenberg the decision whether to play on Rosh Hashanah. “Mickey Cochrane told me it was a personal matter that I must handle myself.” After a mostly sleepless night in his room at the Detroit Leland Hotel, Greenberg headed down to Shaarey Zedek Synagogue early on the morning of September 10. Immediately afterward, still undecided, he made his way to Navin Field. As game time approached, the Tigers began changing into their uniforms, but Greenberg sat by himself in front of his locker in his street clothes, trying to arrive at a resolution. Finally, just minutes before three o’clock, he announced to Cochrane that he could write his name into the lineup. Hank Greenberg was going to play.
The game turned out to be the signature event of his season. Boston right-hander Dusty Rhodes held Detroit scoreless until Greenberg’s seventh-inning solo home run tied the game. The Tigers’ slugger wasn’t finished. Leading off the ninth, he swung viciously at Rhodes’ second pitch and drove the ball on a line over the center-field wall for a 2-1 win. The Boston Globe called it “…one of the hardest hit balls in the history of Navin Field.” It had been an exhausting week for Greenberg, but the victory was worth it. “As Hank crossed the plate to complete his trip around the bases,” wrote the Detroit Free Press, “the crowd swarmed around him and thumped him on the back. Hank accepted the congratulations quietly and then walked from the field with his head down. In the 24 hours preceding the game he had waged a terrific battle with himself and he was tired. He wanted to be alone.” Elden Auker, who allowed only three hits, got his 13th win, and the Tigers gained a half-game on idle New York.
Peeling off his uniform in the locker room after the game, Greenberg’s emotions showed in his words. “I did a lot of praying before the game and I am going to do a lot of it after, but certainly the Good Lord did not let me down today. I was afraid I would be knocked down a couple of times by pitched balls, but once I was in there, I had only one thing to do—keep swinging.”
Wrote the Detroit Jewish Chronicle: “It was a great day for the Tigers. It was a great day for Henry Greenberg. It was a great day for Detroiters, who got a thrill out of this one-man game by a Jewish boy.”
A regular feature of the Detroit Free Press sports section was a columnist writing under the byline of “Iffy the Dopester.” A civic rooter and unabashed Tigers fan (but also a critical one), Iffy took delight in Greenberg’s big game. “I don’t know whether Hank Greenberg did anything wrong—I doubt it—in the eyes of the priests of the synagog, but I’m here to testify to the world as a baseball expert that the two hits he made in that ball game were strictly kosher.”