Jackie Robinson blazed the trail for the integration of baseball in 1947. He had to deal with racial taunts, segregated facilities and fellow players that didn’t want to be on the same field with an African American. Through it all, Robinson maintained his class and dignity, helped pull the sport out of the Stone Age and carved out a Hall of Fame career in the process. He was a hero in every sense of the word.
What most people don’t realize is that Robinson was not the first ballplayer to blaze a trail for an oppressed minority. In the 1930s Hank Greenberg dealt with much the same abuse that Robinson suffered because he was Jewish. He didn’t have to worry about discrimination concerning where to eat or sleep, but the ethnic slurs and dirty play on the field were almost as intense. Much like Robinson, Greenberg was able to maintain his dignity and ended up being feted as the first “Jewish superstar.”
Greenberg came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1933. There had been a scattering of Jewish major leaguers before him, but none had made an impact on the sport. Greenberg did. He was an anchor for four Tiger pennant winning teams and two World Series champions. He was a prestigious home run hitter, swatting 58 round-trippers in 1938. He hit 351 homers in his career despite losing more than four years to military service during World War II.
Greenberg did not have it easy. He had to endure constant ethnic slurs from opposing players. Even some of his teammates didn’t like the idea of playing with a Jew. The future Hall of Famer was not the most natural athlete and had to overcome an awkward build and flat feet to succeed at the sport. He was constantly working on his game throughout his career.
There was no denying his talent though. Greenberg single-handedly converted many Jews, especially European immigrants, into baseball fans. They took great pride in the fact that one of their own was succeeding at the national pastime. It says a lot about Greenberg that he could handle the pressure of both carrying the mantel of ethnic pride as well as endure the taunts and abuse from bigoted fans and other ballplayers.
Greenberg also faced the conundrum of holding out for what he felt he was worth during hard economic times. Some fans looked down upon him as the stereotype of a Jew who only cared about money. But in the end he was always there for his team. Giving up four years in the prime of his career to serve his country did not hurt his reputation either.
Ironically, the paths of Robinson and Greenberg literally crossed during the former’s rookie season and the latter’s final campaign in the big leagues. Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Greenberg for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they collided in a play at first base.
While the reaction of many white players would have been to pick a fight with the black rookie, Greenberg was only concerned that Robinson was OK. He knew what prejudice was like and only encouraged Jackie to hang in there and not allow himself to be pushed around. Robinson never forgot that.
Greenberg was not without his faults. He was too competitive at times, not the most attentive father and too tight-fisted with players once he became a general manager. But overall he had a very successful life on and off the field. He left a legacy all baseball fans could be proud of.
The story of the Hall of Famer’s life and career is beautifully captured in John Rosengren’s biography, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.” Rosengren not only provides details of Greenberg’s background and major league achievements but provides context by juxtaposing his career with the anti-Semitism in this country in the 1920s and `30s, and the rise of Hitler and fascism in Europe prior to World War II.
One of the great things about baseball is that it not only offers a history of itself, but a microcosm of American history as well. Greenberg’s story, as well as Robinson’s, provides us with valuable lessons on what it takes to overcome prejudice and stereotypes in this country. Rosenfeld’s effort, while entertaining, illuminates how difficult a fight it is.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at email@example.com.