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 pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • 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.