It was there when young Hank became an outstanding all-round athlete, and helped Monroe win the city Championship. Back in 1929 when Greenberg’s hometown team the New York Yankees tried recruiting him, he decided to turn down the Bronx Bombers offer and attend NYU for a year, after which he signed with the Detroit Tigers. Greenberg made his major league debut on September 14, 1930 at age 19, playing first base, in his first full season in 1933, he hit .301 and drove in 87 runs in 117 games.
He followed up his rookie season by hitting.339, leading the league in doubles and extra bases hits while helping the Tigers reach the World Series for the first time in 25 years, only to lose to the Cardinals in seven games. But it was that same season when Hank Greenberg put his Jewish religion before his career and was nicknamed “The Hebrew Hammer”. Late in the season, the Tigers first baseman attracted national attention by announcing that he would not play on September 10, which was Rosh Hashanah, nor 10 days later on Yom Kippur. His decision did not sit well with many baseball fans, and The Hammer discussed the matter with his rabbi and agreed to play on the New Year, but not the Day of Atonement. Greenberg started off his new year with in style by hitting two home runs in a 2-1 win over Boston on Rosh Hashanah, the next day’s Detroit’s Free Press ran the Hebrew lettering for “Happy New Year” across its front page.
Greenberg put the controversial season behind him and had a career-making year in1935, when he led the league in RBI’s, total bases, and extra base hits. He was tied for the AL title in home runs with 36, was 2nd in the league in doubles, slugging percentage, and was 3rd in the league in triples, and runs scored. He also led the Tigers to their first ever World Series title in 1935. He was unanimously voted the AL’s MVP award, in a season in which he set a record which still stands today of 103 RBI’s at the All-Star break. As a prodigious home run hitter, Greenberg narrowly missed breaking the babe’s single-season home run record in 1938, when he was again voted to the All-Star team and hit 58 home runs, leading the league for the second time. That year, he set the major league record with 11 multi-homer games. After having been passed over for the All-Star team in 1935 and being left on the bench for the 1937 game, Greenberg refused to participate in the 1938 contest. Though that season, he homered in four consecutive at-bats over two games. He led the league in runs scored, and at-bats per home run, tied for the AL lead in walks, was second in RBI’s, slugging percentage, total bases, and third in OBP, and set a still-standing major league record of 39 homers in his home park. Greenberg also had a 59th home run wiped away in a rainout.
Greenberg took some time off from baseball to serve his country in World War II from 1941-1944. On July 1, 1945, “The Hebrew Hammer” returned to the majors and hit a home run in his first game back since being discharged. He made the All-Star team once again and helped the Tigers win the pennant with a clinching grand slam in the 9th inning of the of season finale in St.louis. The Tigers went on to beat the cubs in the 1945 World Series, Greenberg’s 2nd title. In 1947, after a lengthy salary dispute with the Tigers, Greenberg was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates and became the first baseball player to earn over $80,000 in a season. 1947 was also Greenberg’s last year in the majors, he finished the season tied for the league lead in walks, on-base percentage, eighth in the league in home runs and tenth in slugging percentage.
Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish player to be elected into the National baseball Hall of Fame in 1956 after earning 86% of the votes and also the first Jewish owner/general manager in 1954 when he took over the Cleveland Indians. He had an astonishing nine-year major league career which was interrupted by the war he served in. During that span, he achieved two World Series Championships, 2 AL MVP awards, batted a .313 average, made the All-Star team five times, had his number, 5, retired by the Tigers, and served his country during the war.
But it was his decision to sit out a Yom Kippur game in 1934 that spoke volumes across the sports world. Ever since that gutsy decision, fellow Jewish baseball players like former Brooklyn Dodgers Superstar Sandy Koufax and NY Mets Shawn green, followed in Greenberg’s foot steps by not playing on Yom Kippur. Many Jews from around the world have continued in Greenberg’s tracks, not just by playing professional sports, but also by owning, managing, coaching, legal representation, and over seeing all sports operations and athletic activities on all levels today.
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