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.
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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.
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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.


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