Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Jewish Hall of Fame: Hank Greenberg

This week’s inductee is the original Hebrew Hammer, considered to be one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history

By: Zak Edwards

Published: April 2nd, 2014 in Sports » Local

Since the dawn of time, Jewish people have contributed greatly to various fields, from sports to entertainment to politics to porn. With our Breakthrough Jew feature, we recognize those who are up and comers in these various industries, identifying those great innovators and leaders in the contemporary world who are making a mark on society that will last a lifetime.

With the Jewish Hall of Fame, we recognize the remarkable advancements members of our community have made on today’s society. These are people who have truly changed the world, and have earned the respect and praise of the members of today’s younger generation.

ShalomLife’s Jewish Hall of Fame is our ongoing tribute to the greatest Jews who have ever lived; be sure to catch us weekly with our latest inductees, and tweet us @ShalomLife with your suggestions.

Check out last week’s inductee into the Hall of Fame here.

Hall of Fame Member: Hank Greenberg

Born: January 1, 1911, Greenwich Village, New York, United States

Died: September 4, 1986, Beverly Hills, California, United States

Famous For: Youngest player to join the Major leagues, being first Jewish player to become MVP, slugging

Baseball may be America’s favourite pastime, but it hasn’t always been that way for every American.

The sport’s history also tracks America’s history with their own prejudice. Jackie Robinson helped pave the way for the world. The history of Jews in baseball is a little different. Lip Pike was playing back in the 1800’s, as we have seen, but Hank Greenberg took Jews from a tolerated presence to superstar status.

Born Hyman Greenberg on January 1, 1911, the baseball sensation came from humble beginnings. His father and mother were Romanian-Jewish immigrants that started a successful cloth-shrinking plant in Greenwich Village, New York. By high school, Greenberg towered over his classmates at 6’3″. He played all sorts of sports but loved baseball more than any other. His big body took some getting used to, so he played first base.

At 18, he was offered a place with the New York Yankees, but declined to attend New York University. He was in university for one year before signing with the Detroit Tigers for $9,000 (about $127,000 today). When he signed with Detroit, Greenberg was the youngest player in the majors at the tender age of 19. He had played in the minor leagues for 3 years, joining the Tigers in 1933.

In his first season, Greenberg hit 87 runs but was also third in the league for strikeouts. In his second season, he hit .339, led the league in doubles and extra base hits, and helped get the Tigers to their first world series in 25 years. He was even ahead of Babe Ruth for slugging percentage.

His great plays and stats rocketed him to fame in a way no other Jewish player had, and earned him several nicknames, including the Hebrew Hammer, Hankus Pankus, and Hammerin’ Hank.

But 1934 brought his stardom and Jewish identity into conflict. The team went from fifth to fighting for the American league pennant. One of the key games, however, fell on Rosh Hashanah, the day the Tigers, who led the league by four games in the standings, were playing the Boston Red Sox. The decision to play weighed heavily on Greenberg and, after consulting with his rabbi, he decided to play on Rosh Hashanah but spend Yom Kippur itself in his synagogue. Greenberg hit two runs on Rosh Hashanah.

Ten days later, he received a standing ovation at his synagogue as the Tigers lost without their star. Local reporter and poet Edgar A. Guest wrote a poem about Greenberg’s decision that said in part “We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat, But he’s true to his religion–and I honor him for that!”

The rest of the Detroit press was less friendly and understanding of Greenberg, but the Tigers made it to the World Series that year anyways. They lost to the Cardinals in seven games, but won the World Series in the next year.

For his part in the victory, Greenberg became the first Jewish-American in either major league’s history to be awarded MVP.

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