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Memories of another
baseball hero

Letter No. 180 | June 18, 2000

Hello Jon,

Nanty Glo Letter 150, titled “Memories of a Baseball Hero,” discussed Hal Newhouser, an old Detroit Tigers 1940's baseball player. Another Tiger teammate, Hank Greenberg, from the same era has recently been resurrected in a movie. Both players were boyhood baseball heroes of mine. The movie, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, is being shown in limited engagements at theaters.

Since Hank was Jewish, the movie brings attention to social issues of both past and present, like anti-Semitism. Also, the adage, “What goes around, comes around,” proved to be true recently when the Tigers and Chicago Cubs met in interleague play for the first time in 55 years. The two teams last met in the 1945 World Series won by the Tigers in seven games, and Greenberg and Newhouser proved to be the stars. The Cubs have been in a long drought since, not winning any pennants after that meeting.

Attached is Hank's picture from a scrapbook, drawn by a 13-year-old fan back in 1945. I saw Hank Greenberg play in 1947 in a double header between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Giants at the first major league games I ever attended. My mother asked a neighbor, Joe Strapple, if I could attend with him and several mining friends.

Hank Greenberg presented a physical appearance of power and strength at 6 foot 4 inches and 215 pounds. He had long sleek black hair, full in the back. The Pirates lost the first game, but the second game ended in dramatic fashion when Frankie Gustine, not a noted power hitter, blasted a homer over the left field wall in extra innings to break a tie game.

After being affiliated with the Detroit organization from 1933 (excluding the war years), Hank had a contract dispute and the Tigers waived him out of the American League to Pittsburgh. The Pirates coaxed Hank to play the 1947 season for them for the incredible amount of $100,000. It was a period when a star player earned perhaps $20,000 per year and the majority were making a lot less.

Labeled with the nickname “Hammerin' Hank,” Greenberg was named twice as the American League's Most Valuable Player (1935 and 1940). In 1938 he had 58 homeruns, challenging Babe Ruth's 60-home-run season in 1928. What is significant is that Hank was one of the first successful Jewish athletes during a period when religious discrimination was rampant. Despite jeers from some bigoted fans, he remained a model figure that made his Jewish community proud.

Once, the question arose whether he should play baseball on certain Jewish holidays. Hank refrained from playing on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Strict fasting and no type of physical labor are mandatory for Jewish followers during Yom Kippur. Old Pirate fans will remember a bullpen built in front of Forbes Field's distant left field wall labeled “Greenberg Gardens.” Hank hit 25 home runs in 1947.

Demolished years ago, Forbes Field was a picturesque baseball field with lush green grass and ivy-covered walls. Greenberg made friends with his protégé, Ralph Kiner, a noted Pirate slugger. Kiner would prove to be about the only offensive weapon the Pirates had, for they were mired in last place in the National League from 1950 to 1955. They emerged finally to win the pennant and the World Series over the New York Yankees in 1960 on Bill Mazeroski's famous game-winning homerun in the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game.

When Greenberg retired after the 1947 season, the left field bullpen became known as “Kiner's Korner.” In 1956, Hank Greenberg became the first Jewish player to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He spent the following years in management positions with several major league teams. I last saw him seated in an upper press box at a Cleveland Indians game I attended in 1958. Now older and grayed, he still had the physically powerful presence. Hank retired from baseball in 1963 to become a successful investment banker on Wall Street in his native New York City, and passed away in 1986 at the age of 75.

Best Regards,
Frank Charney

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