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.