With class, Greenberg rose above others' prejudice

August 22, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

All that could be discerned through the enthusiastic eyes of an 11-year-old child is Hank Greenberg fit the dimensions of a hero -- and, in ongoing respectful memory, still does. He played for the Detroit Tigers, was a giant of a man who hit home runs high into the sky and over faraway fences.

That he was the only Jewish player in the major leagues was something the newspapers mentioned infrequently. Such a description carried absolutely no significance to a young boy impressed with Greenberg's stature, 6 feet 3 1/2, 218 pounds, and what he could do with a bat in his hands.

Maybe we should have realized, even one so infantile, that he had to endure insults about being Jewish. It was part of baseball's dugout warfare. Psychological but also personal. And mean of spirit. That he was talented and the lone member of his minority in the major leagues added to the broadside assaults.

Truthfully, we didn't know what it meant to be anti-Jew. But Greenberg, unfortunately, heard the worst of aspersions cast upon his Hebrew heritage. He was to say later, "God loves everybody; we are all children of God." The perfect rejoinder.

A new documentary, "The Life And Times of Hank Greenberg," brings it all into regretable focus. The film will be shown in Baltimore on Aug. 30 as a benefit for the Babe Ruth Museum and Ciesla Foundation. Its content, even now, from the perspective of viewing and hearing of what went on more than 50 years ago, is appalling. An adolescent, in his age of innocence, didn't realize what Greenberg was subjected to, and it's doubtful if even the general public realized the extent of the indignities originating from the stands and rival teams.

Against the Chicago Cubs, in the 1935 World Series, shouts came from their bench when Greenberg was at bat that caused a tough Irish umpire, George Moriarity, to tell them to cease and desist such a despicable tirade. The dugout chant was, "Throw him a pork chop, he can't hit that."

Moriarity, the only man in history to be a major-league player, manager and later an umpire (also a songwriter of a World War II patriotic rouser), told the Cubs off the field he'd fight the entire team, player after player, if they wanted to step up and accept the challenge. Whether Moriarity's bold offer had anything to do with defending Greenberg isn't known, but it happened.

Greenberg said he turned the bigoted shouts into motivational messages. "The insults made me do better," he said in an interview before his death in 1986 at age 75.

Twice he was the American League's Most Valuable Player. And in 1938, he seriously challenged Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a 154-game season by accounting for 58. He had five games to hit three more to break the mark but didn't get any closer.

Erroneous accusations come forth in the film that he was walked intentionally to keep from catching Ruth. This is hokum. And son, Steve, as handsome as his father, and a five-year minor-league player, refutes such claims by saying, "Dad never felt that was true," meaning he didn't believe America and the business of baseball was united in not wanting a Jew to surpass Ruth.

Greenberg's number came up early in the military draft before World War II. He was summoned early in the 1941 season. The fact he was then a 28-year-old bachelor had enhanced his chances of being called.

He immediately went from making $50,000 a year to Army private pay of $21 a month. The plan was if the United States didn't go to war that he and others involved in the peacetime draft would be discharged. For Greenberg, that came Dec. 5, 1941, and he was eager to rejoin the Tigers in spring training.

It happened that two days after he returned to civilian status, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and he returned to duty, this time with the Army Air Corps, where he earned four battle stars and became Captain Greenberg.

When the war in Europe was over, he had served a total of four years, 55 days and was mustered out, joining the Tigers and hitting a home run in his first game back. Then on the final day of the schedule, he tagged a bases-loaded homer that won the pennant for Detroit and, ultimately, another win over the Cubs in the World Series.

A teammate and fellow Hall of Fame member, Hal Newhouser, relates in the filmed account that if he needed one player to get a hit or drive in a run, his pick would be Greenberg over Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams. Then he adds, ` except if Bob Feller was pitching."

Feller had a similar effect on hundreds of hitters, but Greenberg admittedly had unusual trouble with him. On the final day of the 1938 season, hoping to overtake Ruth, the fire-balling Feller struck him out twice and also 16 other batters.

The Greenberg presentation was written and directed by Aviva Kempner, who emphasizes, in this informative work, the ugly bias a Jewish player and a major-league All-Star had to endure. His abundant ability, courage and personal stability enabled him to prevail over the anti-Semitism smut.

Hank Greenberg has been a special figure, a hero who has lasted for a lifetime to a once-upon-a-time child whose mind was never poisoned by prejudice. That too often comes from parents with hate in their hearts.

His signature is fading in our old autograph book, but not his cherished memory.

Tickets for the Baltimore charity premier of the film, to be held at the Gordon Center For Performing Arts on Aug. 30 at 7 p.m., are priced at $100. Part of the program will be a tribute to the late Jerold Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles during the 1960s and '70s. They may be ordered by calling 410-727-1539, ext. 3016.

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