Anyone seeing “42” would be horrified at the hostility Jackie Robinson faced from his teammates and opposing players and catcalling from the stands when he integrated Major League Baseball.
What the film did not depict was the reported encounter Robinson had with the one baseball player who could best understand the prejudice the Civil Rights symbol encountered on the field in 1947.
That man was another first baseman, Jewish slugger Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the sunset year of his career. Greenberg had been unfairly released from the Detroit Tigers the year before even though his power had helped the team win four pennants and two World Series.
The two men met on the field on May 15th. According to sports columnist Ira Berkow “Greenberg was appalled by some of the things the players in his own dugout were hollering at Robinson.”
A little drama unfolded when Robinson hit a ball and collided with Greenberg running to first base. Greenberg went out of his way to help Robinson up and give him a pep talk. After the game, the reporters asked the rookie what Greenberg had said to him. Robinson asserted, ‘He gave me encouragement.”
This empathy was expressed because Greenberg understood Robinson’s struggles. “42” mentions in passing that Greenberg was subject to anti-Semitic slurs, but that was only the tip of the prejudice. Upon first entering the minor leagues in the 1930s,
Greenberg realized that most of his ballplayers were “country boys and had never had seen a Jew. I remember my teammate Jo-Jo White, when he saw me he couldn’t understand because he was always told that Jews had horns. And here I was, I looked like a normal human being, and he just couldn’t figure it out.”
Describing the years of catcalling Greenberg recalled, “It was a constant thing. There was always some leather lung in the stands that was getting on me and yelling at me.” Greenberg asserted that the hostility was “a spur to make me do better, because I could never fall asleep on the ball field.”