From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Man of His Word

There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.

Clement Stone

I first met Hank Greenberg in 1947. I was twenty-four years old and in my second season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hank was one of baseball’s greatest legends, a superstar who had been my boyhood idol. In those days, established stars rarely spoke to young players. But after practice on the first day of spring training, Hank invited me to stick around for some extra hitting with him.

“You’ve got a lot of power,” he said after watching me take a few swings. “But you’ll never be a great home-run hitter the way you’re doing it.” He changed my stance, moving me up in the batter’s box and closer to the plate.

Nevertheless, I got off to a horrible start that season. Hank kept encouraging me: “Keep with it—everything’s going to fall into place.” But by the end of May, I had hit only three home runs. Then I had the worst day of my life, striking out four times. I was worried that manager Billy Herman would send me down to the minors.

Hank went to one of the Pirates owners and pleaded my case: “Don’t farm this kid out. He’s going to be a tremendous hitter.” Then he added, “I’ll bet you a new suit that he’ll come around.” From June until the end of the season I hit forty-eight home runs.

Hank Greenberg brought as much class to baseball as any individual—ever. He was “Hammerin’ Hank,” the first great Jewish ballplayer, a man whose religious faith, patriotism and sheer love of the game were accompanied by a humble spirit and extraordinary poise. His friendship and his example had an indelible effect on my life. He taught me how to live “the right way.”

Hank’s hitting feats with the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s rivaled those of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams. A 6-foot 3H-inch, 215-pound slugger, he put fear into the heart of every opposing pitcher. Season after season, Hank would rack up league-leading totals in a host of categories—walks, doubles, home runs, runs scored, runs batted in. In 1938 he challenged Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a season by hitting fifty-eight; no right-handed batter had ever hit more.

Hank won four home-run championships and was twice voted the American League’s most valuable player. He led the Tigers to four pennants and two World Series championships. He compiled a .313 career batting average— and did all that despite a break for four years’ service in the Army during World War II.

With his power-hitting and growing fame, Hank was a source of pride and encouragement to Jews of the late ’30s when Hitler was on the march. Actor Walter Matthau, a friend of Hank’s in later life, remembers growing up on New York’s Lower East Side: “You couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the sight of one of our guys looking like a colossus.”

Nevertheless, as columnist Shirley Povich later noted, “Baseball was not distinguished by lofty intellectuals in Greenberg’s time. He was a target of subtle and flagrant anti-Semitism, an earlier version of the bigotry that hounded Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers.”

When Hank played for the Pirates in 1947, he was one of the first opposing players to give encouragement to Robinson, who broke major-league baseball’s color barrier that year. Robinson and Hank had accidentally collided on a close play at first base. Hank later apologized for the mishap and, noting the taunts and insults thrown at Robinson, said, “Don’t let them get to you. You’re doing fine.” After the game, Jackie told reporters, “Hank Greenberg has class. It stands out all over him.”

Henry Benjamin Greenberg was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village on New Year’s Day 1911, the third of four children of David and Sarah Greenberg, emigrants from Romania. After high school, he briefly attended New York University. Craving the opportunity to play professional baseball, Hank persuaded his parents to let him try.

In 1930 he went to spring training with the Tigers.

After three seasons in the minors, Hank burst into the big leagues, hitting .301 in 1933, his rookie year. But it was in 1934, his second season with Detroit, that Hank secured his place in twentieth-century American culture. It was September, and the Tigers were fighting for their first pennant since 1909. Whether Hank would play on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, became an issue not only in Detroit but across the country. When Hank went to temple instead of to the ballpark, he was immortalized by Edgar A. Guest in a popular poem that concluded:

Said Murphy to Mulrooney,
“We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield
and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion—
and I honor him for that!”

Without Hank in the line-up, the Tigers did lose that day. But Hank Greenberg, winner of four home-run championships and four World War II battle stars, said the only time he really felt like a hero was that day in temple, when he received a standing ovation from the congregation. And the Tigers went on to win the pennant that year.

On May 6, 1941, Hank blasted two home runs to lead the Tigers to victory over the New York Yankees. The next day he reported to Fort Custer, Michigan. One of baseball’s first big stars to be drafted, he had registered even though he was beyond the age when he could have been called up.

Hank was discharged as over-age on December 5, 1941—two days before Pearl Harbor. After the attack, he enlisted again. Hank had his priorities: God, country, team.

Hank went into the Army Air Corps as a private and rose to the rank of captain. He spent almost a year in China and was in the first land-based bombing of the Japanese mainland in June 1944.

What a day Hank had when he returned from the Army—July 1945. Sunday afternoon. Briggs Stadium, Detroit, was jammed. In his very first game Hank homered to help Detroit to victory. That was only a prelude to what was to come.

On the last day of the season, he homered again—a ninth-inning grand slam—to clinch the pennant for the Tigers. With a .311 average, sixty runs batted in and thirteen home runs in just three months, he had defied the odds by coming back so successfully after such a long layoff. In the World Series he hit two more homers and drove in seven runs to lead the Tigers over the Cubs.

The 1947 season, Hank’s last, was a struggle for him, but it showed his strength of character. He often played in pain; his elbow bothered him all season. Yet he still managed to drive in seventy-four runs and hit twenty-five homers. I got all the headlines, but he was genuinely happy for me and kept urging me on.

After that season, Hank met Bill Veeck, who owned the Cleveland Indians. The two became friends for life. Hank joined Veeck in Cleveland and eventually became general manager and part-owner of the Indians. They won the World Series together in 1948. In 1959, with some partners, Hank and Bill bought the Chicago White Sox. That year they won a pennant.

When Allie Reynolds of the Yankees and I represented the players in negotiations to upgrade our pension fund, Hank and Pirates owner John W. Galbreath were appointed to meet with us and work out an agreement. Through their efforts we were able to agree on an extraordinary deal: Players would get 60 percent of the revenue from the sale of radio and television rights on World Series and All-Star games, as well as 60 percent of net gate receipts from All-Star games, for the pension fund—the foundation for the most generous pension plan in all of sports. Hank told the owners the players deserved it.

Hank cared deeply for people. He lent money to a ballplayer he wasn’t particularly close to whose business went bad. He lent money to a sportswriter who had been critical of him in print. Hank held no grudges. He kept trying to bring out the best in others.

In November 1954 my baseball career was just about over. I had been traded to the Chicago Cubs. My hitting had slipped; my back and legs ached chronically. Hank called from Cleveland. “I’ve got great news,” he said. “We’ve just traded for you. We need you.”

The Indians needed me? They had just won the pennant with an American League record of 111 victories. It was one of the greatest teams of all time—a team Hank had helped put together.

Hank was criticized in Cleveland for acquiring me. Why did the Indians need an over-the-hill Kiner, making sixty-five thousand dollars a season, more than any other player? Hank called me in and said, “Why don’t you volunteer to take a cut in salary? Then they’ll leave you alone. I’ll make it up to you at the year’s end.” It was unprecedented—a player asking for a salary cut! Hank was right— the criticism stopped. And, of course, he kept his word.

When I stopped playing, I did radio commentary for the Chicago White Sox, owned by Greenberg and Veeck. In June 1961 they sold the team, but Hank helped me get a job broadcasting for the New York Mets, and I’ve done Mets games ever since.

In the mid-’60s Hank started MG Securities, a small investment company in New York, with a friend, David Marx. He approached his investments the same way he did baseball—devoting himself 110 percent—and made millions.

In 1974 Hank and his wife, Mary Jo, moved to Beverly Hills. He continued to follow the stock market and play tennis—handicap games with Jimmy Connors and Bobby Riggs.

Hank also found another cause. To those who wrote seeking his autograph, he sent a signed photograph in return for a five-dollar charitable contribution—which he matched—to his favorite charity, the Pet Adoption Fund for homeless animals.

In June 1985 Hank learned that he had a cancerous tumor in one of his kidneys. The kidney was removed that August, but the cancer had spread. Hank died September 4, 1986, at the age of seventy-five. The last months of his life were especially difficult, but he died as he had lived, without complaint. His three children were among the few to know of his ordeal.

Hank’s son Steve, a Los Angeles lawyer and former minor-league baseball player, tells of the time he asked his father for a photo. A few days later he received one with the inscription, “Kipling said it all for me. Love, Dad.”

Kipling’s poem “If” was the creed by which Hank lived:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth,
And everything that’s in it,
and—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Honored by induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1956, Hank was hailed one more time in Detroit in 1983 when his number, 5, was retired. “When I think of all the great ballplayers who have graced a Detroit Tigers uniform over the years,” he told the crowd, “I’m very proud that my name and number will be remembered as long as baseball is played in Detroit.”

Hank Greenberg’s name will be remembered as long as baseball is played anywhere.

Ralph Kiner

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners