Was Baseball Great Hank Greenberg Even Braver Than Sandy Koufax?

Detroit's Hero Fought Yankees and Anti-Semitism

Ford Tough: Among the surprising facts unearthed about Hank Greenberg was that he worked as an investigator for Henry Ford.
getty images
Ford Tough: Among the surprising facts unearthed about Hank Greenberg was that he worked as an investigator for Henry Ford.

By Dan Epstein

Published April 05, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

In truth, Greenberg himself was not particularly observant; though he’d promised his Orthodox parents — immigrants from Romania who had settled in New York — that he would not play on the High Holy Days, it was a pledge borne more out of respect for their Old World values than out of any heartfelt religious convictions of his own. Weighing far more heavily on him were the hopes and expectations of Detroit’s Jewish community and, indeed, of Jews across the country.

There had been Jewish ballplayers before Greenberg, but none as physically imposing or immensely talented as the 6 foot 4, 210-pound first baseman; and while Hank sought to prove himself as simply a great ballplayer, Jewish newspapers had already begun hailing him as “that elusive Hebrew star,” a symbol of hope and pride in dark times.

Times were dire indeed for Jews in 1934, and not just in Germany, where Hitler’s propaganda machine was already running full bore. Anti-Semitism was also rampant in America, especially in Detroit, home of two of the country’s most influential bigots: Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, who railed against “Jewish conspirators” and “moneychangers” on his weekly radio show, and automotive mogul Henry Ford, who’d published several anti-Semitic tracts over the previous decade, including one about “The Jewish Degradation of American Baseball.”

In this poisonous atmosphere, every move Greenberg made took on a greater significance. Like it or not, Rosengren writes, he “was starting to understand that others — Jews and non-Jews alike — looked to him not simply as a Jew but representative of many. His actions had greater consequences beyond himself. He did not want to let his people down.”

In the end, Greenberg didn’t let down his people or his teammates, thanks to a talmudic loophole that allowed him to spend the first morning of the new year in prayer at Detroit’s largest Conservative synagogue, then spend the afternoon playing baseball at Navin Field, where he hit two home runs — including a dramatic ninth-inning walk-off — in the Tigers’ 2–1 victory over the Red Sox.

But the inner turmoil Greenberg experienced that day (and the self-doubt that plagued him afterward) would set the tone for much of his career, in which the reluctant hero often struggled in equal measure with anti-Semitism and the demands of his Jewish fan base.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.