Thursday, July 06, 2006

The First Hammerin' Hank

There aren't many Jewish baseball players these days. Brad Ausmus has Jewish parents, I think his grandfather is a Rabbi. Kevin Youkilis, Gabe Kapler, John Grabow, Shawn Green, Mike Lieberthal, Jason Marquis, Scott Schoeneweis, that about sums it up for current players. But in a time when Jews across the Atlantic Ocean were being rounded up and senselessly slaughtered, and anti-Semitism at home was prevalent, there was one man who made his mark as a great Jewish baseball player. Before Sandy Koufax there was Hammerin' Hank Greenberg. I didn't really look up to great Jewish athletes growing up, but it was nice to know there were some. My grandfather, however, was in his teens and twenties when Hank Greenberg was playing for the Detroit Tigers.

Years later my grandfather's stories, along with my father's would inform me of one of the greatest power hitters, as well as one of the greatest Americans of all time.

Greenberg was a fresh faced rookie at the age of 22 in Detroit in 1933. He played in a game when he was 19 in 1930, but didn't make it back to the majors for another 2 seasons. During his shortened career, Greenberg hit 339 home runs, most over a period of 6 seasons. Greenberg also missed 4 of his prime years to fight in Europe during World War II. Bill James ranks him as the 8th greatest firstbasemen of all time. A career .313 hitter, he walloped an alarming 58 home runs in 1938. Many people speculate that pitchers didn't pitch to him for the last week of the season because they didn't want a Jew to break the Babe's record of 60 in a season. I don't know how much truth there is to that, but this was pre Jackie Robinson small minded baseball, and people in America in 1938 were not really fond of Jews. I do know this, if Hank Greenberg played today he would crush baseballs out of some of the tiny parks that have been built in the recent past.

Greenberg played one season in Pittsburgh after a long career in Detroit. His final season in the big leagues at the age of 36 Greenberg smacked 25 dingers in 125 games. A five time All-Star and two time AL MVP, Greenberg was one of the greatest power hitters of his generation, if not the greatest. If he had not missed so much time for the war and injuries, he may have hit close to 700 home runs, and could have possibly broken the Babe's all-time record.

If anyone out there is interested there is a great documentary out about Hank Greenberg called, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. I suggest renting it, or buying it, as it is a highly intelligent, well made movie.

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