Baseball’s Barrier Breakers


Hank Greenberg in 1934.

I saw an interview this week with Bert Blyleven, who along with Roberto Alomar, just got voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Blyleven, who was born in the Netherlands, pointed out that he was proud to be the first Dutchman to make it into the Hall.

While it is certainly a major accomplishment to do something no one from your nation has ever done before, I was reminded of a much more significant barrier that was broken by a Hall of Famer who was born 100 years ago this month.

Hank Greenberg, America’s first Jewish sports superstar, was born on New Year’s Day, 1911. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers during the 30s and 40s, Greenberg was born to Jewish immigrant parents who settled in the Bronx. A high school sports standout, he was initially recruited by the Yankees, but turned them down to attend college. A year later, he signed with the Detroit Tigers.

The tall, handsome, and good-natured Greenberg broke into the majors at the age of 19. Four years later he made headlines by announcing he wouldn’t play on the Jewish Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah during the midst of a tight pennant race. He eventually changed his mind after counseling with a rabbi and hit two home runs that day to clinch the pennant.

While hugely respected by his community who called him “The Baseball Moses,” bigotry may have cost him an appearance on the All-Star Team the following year, and he had to endure catcalls that season from the Cubs bench during the World Series.

The slurs got louder during the 1938 season when, while Hitler was sending Jews in Europe to concentration camps, Greenberg was challenging Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record of 60 (he fell two dingers short).

Greenberg joined the armed forces in World War II and sacrificed several seasons during the prime of his career to service in the Far East. He homered in his first game back with the Tigers in 1945, and in the final game of that season, he hit a dramatic ninth-inning grand slam that sealed the American League crown for Detroit.

In 1947, Greenberg’s contract was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. That same season, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Greenberg, sensitive to how he had been treated by players and fans for being different, became one of the few opposing players to publicly welcome Robinson into the league, and the two men became good friends.

Greenberg retired at the end of the 1947 season. He became a baseball executive and owner who was noted for promoting minority players into the big leagues. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956 and died thirty years later. He was the subject of a great documentary entitled The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in 1998.

It makes you wonder how long it will be before an openly gay baseball superstar appears on the scene. When he does, let’s hope his fellow major-leaguers follow Greenberg’s example with Jackie Robinson, and welcome him to the Show.

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About deadwrite

Freelance writer, film historian, taphophile View all posts by deadwrite

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