“I am nobody’s dummy,”

— Hank Greenberg telling the press he would no longer take signs about incoming pitches from coach Del Baker.

*

When spring training opened for the upcoming 1938 season, the Detroit Tigers were three years removed from their first—and to that point only—world’s championship. They had won three straight American League pennants between 1907 and 1909, but lost each fall classic—two to the Chicago Cubs and the third to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They would wait another twenty-five years for their next first-place finish, but once again came up short in the World Series, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang.”

In 1935, the Tigers rode their young slugger Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg into the postseason. He won the major league RBI crown with 168—38 more than his closest competitor, Wally Berger of the NL’s Boston Braves—and tied the Philadelphia A’s strongman Jimmie Foxx for the major league lead in home runs with 36. Greenberg also led the junior circuit (a nickname for the American League) with 389 total bases and finished in the top ten in several other categories including runs scored (third with 120), hits (fourth with 203), batting average (seventh with a .328 mark), slugging (second at .628), on-base percentage (sixth at .411), doubles (second with 46), walks (sixth with 87), and at-bats per home run (second at 17.2). He even finished third with 16 triples; not bad for a guy John McGraw refused to even consider for a tryout because he was too awkward and slow.

The six-foot, three-inch first sacker was no slouch with a mitt either. Surprisingly agile for a big man, he finished either first or second in the league in games, putouts, assists, and double plays in 1935. All this made him the logical—and unanimous— selection for American League MVP. Greenberg’s World Series against the Cubs, however, was a bust—literally.

After going hitless in the opener, Greenberg blasted a two-run homer off Charlie Root in the second game, part of a four-run inning for the Tigers en route to an 8–3 win. In the seventh inning, with one out and Charlie Gehringer on first, Greenberg was hit on the left wrist by a pitch from Fabian Kowalik. He flexed his arm a little on the way to first but, with the pride of the athlete, refused to let on how much it really hurt.

Goose Goslin followed Greenberg and flied out to left for the second out, bringing Pete Fox to the plate. The right fielder sin¬gled to his Cubs counterpart, driving in Gehringer. With two outs, Greenberg was off and running. He galloped (although per¬haps lumbered is a better description) around the bases, hesitating for just a split second at third before continuing on his ill-advised journey. He crashed into Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs’ six-foot-one, 195-pound catcher, who landed heavily on Greenberg’s already injured wrist, holding on to the ball for the third out.

Greenberg
taking his oath of service in the U.S. Army, circa 1940. (Wikimedia)

Greenberg walked to the dugout cradling his arm. In his mind, he must have known that something was seriously wrong, but in his heart he was unwilling to admit a worst-case scenario. Despite immediate post-game treatments and more the next day, the pain proved to be too much and the Tigers’ best man was done for the remainder of the Series.

As it happened, the sixth and final game—a 4–3 win for the Tigers—fell on October 7: Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Just the year before, Greenberg had become a national figure by acceding to the wishes of his family and the tenets of his religion by refusing to play in a crucial game even though it came right in the midst of a pennant race. For some reason, though, he decided the 1935 World Series was an entirely different kettle of gefilte fish and indicated he would play this time around. Had he done so, it might have changed the way some—especially his Jewish fans—thought about him, negating the good will from the previous year. The injury made that all a moot point, taking the decision out of his hands. Perhaps larger forces were at play. Greenberg was happy for the team, of course; the Tigers had won their first World Series title. But he was disappointed he had not been able to have more of a role.

It was only after Detroit had clinched the championship that X-rays revealed Greenberg had several small cracks in his wrist.

*

The injury proved to be a crucial factor in the Tigers’ underachievements in 1936. In the April 29 game against the Washington Senators, Jake Powell ran into Greenberg at first base. “The accident occurred when the big first baseman, reaching to the left for a wide throw, collided with Powell, who was racing to the bag,” according to an Associated Press story. “As Powell sped past, his left arm caught Greenberg’s and wrenched it back. Hank fell to the ground and after a hurried examination on the field was rushed to a hospital.” X-rays revealed the wrist was broken again.

There was a good deal of conjecture that Powell had deliberately sought to injure the Jewish ballplayer. He had earned a reputation over the years as an unrepentant bigot, once telling reporters he kept in shape during the off-season by serving as an “honorary” police officer in Dayton, Ohio, where he “beat niggers over the head with [his] blackjack.”

Initially, Greenberg was only supposed to miss a month to six weeks, but in reality his season was over after just 12 games. Detroit finished in second place with a 83–71 record, 19.5 games behind the Yankees who ran away with the pennant, winning 102 before beating the Giants in the World Series.

Greenberg returned to robust health for the 1937 campaign, bashing 40 home runs and driving in a major league–best 184 runs—third highest in the history of the game behind Hack Wilson’s 191 and Lou Gehrig’s 185—but the team’s results were the same: second place, albeit with a slightly better mark of 89–65, 13 games behind the Yankees, who repeated as World Series champs, again over their cross-river rival.

*

With most of the starting position players returning for 1938, hopes were high as the Tigers prepared for the new season and looked to improve on the previous year. While they fell short of the AL title, finishing 13 games behind the Yankees, they still had an impressive 89 wins. And while it was the most wins they’d had since their title year of ’35, what was most impressive was the suc¬cess they had with their bats, leading the AL in hits, batting aver¬age, and on-base percentage, and coming in second in home runs, RBIs, runs, doubles, stolen bases, slugging average, and total bases.

The double play combo, one of the best in the game, was intact heading into ’38 with Greenberg at first, Charlie Gehringer (a.k.a. “The Mechanical Man” for his steady play) at second, and switch-hitting Billy Rogell at short. Third base would be entrusted to Don Ross, a twenty-three-year-old rookie, while Rudy York, a promising slugger without a real defensive posi¬tion, was once again behind the plate, at least for the time being.

Prior to the new season, it was York whom sports prognosticators chose as a possible new home run king. In its issue of April 7, The Sporting News declared, “York, Who Fought Four Years for Tiger Job, Seeks New ‘Break’—Ruth’s 60-Homer Record” while Newsweek thought enough of that possibility to put him on the cover of their April 18 edition positing the question, “Rudy York—Greatest Slugger Since Babe Ruth?”

Pete Fox was set to anchor right field following his 12 home runs and 82 RBIs in 1937. Chet Morgan, who had made his big league debut with the Tigers in 1935 before returning to the minors for the next two seasons, was back to play center. Dixie Walker, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a six-player deal in December to replace Gee Walker (no relation), was handed the responsibility of patrolling left.

Greenberg with the Pirates in 1947. (Wikimedia)

In the years before September call-ups allowed teams to have up to 40 on their roster (not to mention the inordinate number of replacements for those on the disabled list), the Tigers used just 31 players for the entire 1937 season, including only 13 pitchers. (Compare that with the 2016 Tigers, who used 44 players, 22 of them pitchers.)

The starting rotation completed the league average of 70 games in 1937. Vern Kennedy, at thirty-one, was the ace of the staff, having been acquired during the offseason in the Walker deal. He was followed by George Gill, the submarine-throwing Elden Auker, Tommy Bridges, Roxie Lawson, and the brilliantly nicknamed Boots Poffenberger. Boots, at twenty-two years of age, was the baby of the group.

Cochrane counted on Harry Eisenstat, a former Dodger, and Slick Coffman, in his sophomore season, to be the mainstays out of the bullpen. They would be backed up by Al Benton and Jake Wade. Like Greenberg, Eisenstat had grown up in an observant Jewish household in New York City.

Beginning in 1934, and with the exception of 1943–45 when travel restrictions required teams to prepare for the season closer to their home cities (in their case, Evansville, Indiana), the Tigers spent spring training in Lakeland, Florida. The home ballpark, Henley Field, was named for a local drug store merchant (but was rebranded Joker Marchant Stadium in 1967). Located just 35 miles east of Tampa, Lakeland’s warm, sunny climate has historically been conducive for the citrus business that still accounts for a sizeable portion of the local economy. The industry suffered a setback during the Depression, as did a substantial portion of the country. But instead of dust storms, it was an infestation of Mediterranean fruit flies that cut production by more than half in the late twenties.

The Tigers arrived for spring training confident in their abilities. Who knows how far they could go with a fully recovered Hank Greenberg? Maybe “Hankus Pankus” (a nickname bestowed upon him by Ty Tyson, a popular Detroit radio broadcaster) would get a break and go through the forthcoming season without major injury, suggested Bill McGowan, an American League umpire and writer, in The Sporting News. “If he does, watch for some records to fall.”5 McGowan was not so bold as to predict which records those might be, however.

Greenberg was also feeling his oats, looking for a bigger sal¬ary and declaring he was his own man at the plate. Sure, he had taken some signs from his coach Del Baker, who had an uncanny ability to pick up the opposing catcher’s signs and relay to the hitters what pitch might be coming, but that was over. In a Q&A format interview with J.G. Taylor Spink, publisher of The Sporting News, Greenberg said, “The word has spread around that if I do not get the sign, I can’t hit. That is not so. . . . I believe the time has come for Hank Greenberg to get out on his own, and get the credits, or the blame, on his own.”

“I’ve got a hunch the Yankees are going to blow up in a large way this year,” Greenberg told reporters in January. He would have done better to keep such predictions to himself: Not only did the Bombers end up winning their straight World Championship, but his other forecasts—that the Giants would “win it in a walk” and that Dizzy Dean would win 25 games—were similarly mis¬guided. The Giants finished third in the NL and Dean, after several years as the ace of the Cardinals staff, appeared in just 13 games for his new team, the Chicago Cubs. The Dean deal was the biggest news during spring training. The Cubs acquired him from their perennial archrivals right before the trading deadline in exchange for three players and $185,000, the second highest monetary figure to date after the $250,000 the Boston Red Sox paid for future Hall of Famer Joe Cronin.

By all accounts, the Tigers enjoyed a successful spring tune-up, winning 18 of 27 games. Greenberg presaged the reliable contrib¬utor he would be during the regular season by leading his team in most offensive categories, including at-bats, runs, hits, home runs, and runs batted in; he and York combined for 16 of the team’s 26 round-trippers with nine and seven, respectively. In the final game at Lakeland before heading north, Greenberg hit a mammoth shot in a 7–6 win over the Montreal Royals of the International League. Despite the great distance, it was, amazingly, not a home run but a very long out. The Montreal outfielder “went half way to Winter Haven to haul down the long fly ball,” wrote Charles Ward in the Free Press account.

“The ball must have travelled 500 feet,” according to Ward. “It was hit so hard that Roy Cullenbine was able to score from second base after the catch.” One of Greenberg’s teammates joked that the outfielder had to have been playing “out of bounds” to make the play.

In a brief preseason assessment for The Sporting News, Bill Dooly, who normally plied his trade for the Philadelphia Record, deter¬mined that the new batch of Tigers were “a pretty fair country ball club, say we, one that might very well win the American League burgee” (burgee being just a five-dollar word for the pennant).

But all this was just the usual optimistic build-up, with many teams working out their personnel and experimenting with one thing or another. Once the campaign began, each organization would start out on an equal footing in the standings. It would be different once the bell rang on Opening Day. The time had come to see what the real season had in store.

*

The optimism that surrounded the return of baseball after a long cold winter could not, however, keep real world issues from continuing to cast a pall on more significant matters, at least according to fans.

In March, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers made their first major move in their quest for global domination with the Anschluss—the annexation of Austria—ostensibly to protect the rights of residents of German heritage. Well, not all Austrians of German heritage. That is, not the Jews. A series of increasingly restrictive measures which began with the Nuremberg Laws were put in place to make that population as miserable as possible, including the registration of any property owned by Jews valued at over 5,000 Reichmarks ($21,000 in 1938 dollars, almost $345,000 in 2016).

In the Jewish quarter of Vienna boys were flogged, the eyes of old men watered as their beards were jerked. Nazis spat in the face of Jewesses, and almost everyone whether Jew or Aryan was soon wearing a swastika. Later Jews were forbidden to wear them.

It is well beyond the scope of this book to examine the causes and events of domestic and international politics during that timeframe, but some facts are elementary: the Nazis blamed the Jews for the majority of their problems (and the world’s ills) and wanted them removed from German society. At first it seemed they might be content with just driving the Jews out of the country, forcing them to uproot after centuries of residence despite their incalculable contributions in the fields of art, music, literature, science, and more. Soon—but at the same time too slowly—it became evident that Germany found the mere existence of the Jewish race anathema. The Jews were a disease and the problems would only continue if the “virus” was not eradicated.

The situation proved unbearable for some Jews who had neither the financial means nor opportunity to relocate to better circumstances. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, considered the wire service for the Jewish news world, reported that with Austria clamping down on measures to prevent its Jewish residents from leaving the country, some 1,700 people—“most of them professionals, merchants and scientists”—had chosen to commit suicide rather than live under Nazi rule.

“While Jews continued to besiege consulates for visas, it was apparent that the authorities here were under orders to make Jewish emigration practically impossible,” the JTA recounted under a Vienna dateline in late March.

Such news did little to melt the hearts of American isolationists, as well as European nations outside German sway, who combined the fear and hatred of the foreign with continued anxiety over economic instability. An editorial in the May 1938 Defender magazine was typical of the sentiment: “Let us stop immigration completely for a while and give our present alien population an opportunity to become Americanized before they foreignize us.” Only slightly more charitable was a piece in The New York Times that conceded “Even the United States, with its immense area and resources, cannot be expected to perform today, with millions of its own people unemployed, the historic service it has previously performed in giving unlimited refuge to the victims of political and religious persecution.” President Roosevelt’s own cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the US commissioner of immigration, warned “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Hank Greenberg statue outside Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Josh May / Flickr)

As the simmering threats in Europe began to reach their boiling point, small news items no more than three or four paragraphs slowly migrated from deep within the tabloids and broadsheets to larger headlines and front page articles. They had little positive effect. A poll by Fortune magazine published in July 1938 asked, “What is your attitude toward allowing German, Austrian, and other political refugees to come into the United States?” Although the publication has traditionally been geared toward a more well-to-do and better-educated readership, there is no indication to whom the question was posed. Nevertheless, less than five percent agreed with the proffered response: “We should encourage them to come even if we have to raise our immigration quotas.” An overwhelming majority—67.4 percent—aligned with the answer: “With conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out.” Nor were respondents more generous early the following year when the question was revised to allow only children to enter the country: in this case the results were 30 percent agreeing and 61 percent denying a change in policy.

In early November 1938, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), two days of mob violence and van¬dalism that resulted in scores of deaths and the destruction of thousands of Jewish businesses, homes, schools, and synagogues. In addition, thirty thousand Jews were sent to concentration camps. The Nazis justified their actions by claiming these demon¬strations came as a result of the assassination of a member of the German consulate stationed in France by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen-year-old Jew who sought revenge after members of his family had been evicted from their home and business by German police in Poland.

This marked the unofficial beginning of open season on Jews.

A poll conducted by the Gallup Organization in the U.S. two weeks after Kristallnacht offered some seemingly contradictory information, although it confirmed earlier attitudes:

Do you approve or disapprove of the Nazi’s treatment…of Jews in Germany?

Approve: 5.6%
Disapprove: 88.2%
No Opinion: 6.2%
Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?
Yes: 21.2%
No: 71.8%
No Opinion: 7%

Shockingly, nearly 65 percent of the respondents said, “the prosecution of the Jews in Europe has been their own fault” either entirely or in part.

Is it any wonder that Americans—even (especially?) American Jews—sought to find a few hours respite through the simple game of baseball?

Excerpted with permission from Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War, copyright © 2017 by Ron Kaplan, published by by Sports Publishing, a division of Skyhorse Publishing.

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