Hank Greenberg went to bat for his country and the Tigers
THERE is much to write about Hank Greenberg and the things he did. His death brings to life thoughts that return to World War II. All the stories on Greenberg, a star with the Detroit Tigers, reported his 331 big league home runs, his two Most Valuable Player awards, and other pertinent data. He was a tremendous player with great power at the plate. In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, almost catching Babe Ruth's 60 for one season.
Hank drew a low draft number. At age 30, a bachelor, he was drafted into the Army in May 1940. Pvt. Hank Greenberg, highest-paid player in baseball, traded his bat for a rifle with a sharp difference in income. In early December 1941, however, men over 28 were permitted discharge. Hank became a civilian again. Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Greenberg didn't hesitate. He volunteered, and chose Officers' Training School in the Air Corps.
Hank had a distinguished military career. He earned four battle stars and participated in the first land-based bombing of Japan. He came out of the war a captain. He gave three years of his baseball prime time to his country, although he was fully entitled to attack only pitchers in the American League.
When you look at statistics, try to get the meaning of the cold figures. How many home runs do you think Greenberg would have totaled had he played those war years, against pitchers who by and large wouldn't have been in the league except for the war, when just about anybody who could breathe filled out the teams?
Can you imagine the hits Greenberg and Ted Williams would have gotten against that type of pitching? Williams was in the service twice as a pilot in the Marine Corps. Once he landed his plane as it burst into flames. Williams was out of baseball almost five years, and I would think, had Ted been allowed to play those war years, he might have passed Ruth's total of 714 home runs, as Hank Aaron would eventually do.
Bob Feller was in the Navy four years. He was gun-crew chief on the USS Alabama, and earned eight battle stars. Yet all estimates agree that, had Feller been allowed those years in baseball, he would have passed Walter Johnson in strikeouts, and who knows in what other achievements?
Jerry Coleman, now broadcasting for San Diego, was twice called into the Marines as a combat pilot. Jerry came out a colonel. His baseball career was seriously curtailed, but in the years I worked with Jerry at Yankee Stadium I never heard him refer to his Marine service, much less wish it had been otherwise. Many players paid their prices. I was at Brooklyn then, and Pee Wee Reese was gone four years, Harry Lavagetto five. The record books do not tell the complete story. Look at it this way: Suppose four years had been taken out of the careers of Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan. What would their totals read today?
But back to Greenberg. The last days of John McGraw must have distressed the old manager of the New York Giants. Hank's father got a friend to arrange a tryout for Hank with McGraw. McGraw said Hank was too clumsy and turned him down. Can you imagine, with those short foul line distances at the Polo Grounds, what home runs Hank would have hit as a Giant?
In 1939, Greenberg was the premier first baseman in both leagues. Yet for the season of 1940 he was in left field for the Tigers, a brand new position.
Detroit had come up with Rudy York, who could hit the ball but had failed to play the outfield, third base, or catch. His only position was at first. So Hank made the adjustment.
Hank's last year as a player was 1947 at Pittsburgh. With the Pirates, Hank helped two young ballplayers, and one of them needed all the help he could get from anyone.
Greenberg immediately saw the greatness of Ralph Kiner. He was, in effect, Kiner's personal batting coach. I remember Hank coming to Ebbets Field with the Pirates and telling us what a wonderful future Kiner would have.
At the start of 1947, Branch Rickey put Jackie Robinson on the Dodgers as the first black player in modern times in organized baseball. Early in the season, Robinson was terribly abused by the Phillies, and later there was a threat by the Cardinals to boycott any game Jackie played in. It was very rough, very hard for Robinson and for his young wife with a baby.
The Dodgers came into Pittsburgh for the first time that year. Early in a game, Jackie and Greenberg collided on a close play at first base. Nothing was said at the time. Later, Greenberg said to Jackie, ``I should have asked you if you were hurt.'' Jackie said, ``No.'' Greenberg then said, ``Stick in there . . . you're doing fine . . . keep your chin up.'' After the game, Jackie said, ``Class tells . . . it sticks out all over, Mr. Greenberg.'' Quotable quotes
Gary Player, after sinking a 96-foot birdie putt in a seniors golf tournament: ``If it had gone any farther, it would have needed a passport.''
Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz: ``Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.''
Frank Layden, the rotund coach of basketball's Utah Jazz, on his staff's pregame preparations: ``My assistants break down the films and analyze the games while I scout the menus.''