Position: First Baseman; Outfielder
Teams: Detroit Tigers, 1930; 1933-1941; 1945-1946; Pittsburgh Pirates, 1947
Of the many players who lost playing time and had their career totals diminished by World War II, Hank Greenberg may have lost the most. He was active for only nine and one-half seasons, serving in the Army for four and one-half years, but was able to produce Hall of Fame numbers.
Henry Benjamin Greenberg (1911-1986) was raised in the Bronx, and the Yankees offered the 18-year-old a contract in 1929. With Lou Gehrig at first base for the Yanks, Greenberg chose to sign with the Tigers. In his first two farm seasons, he was a .300 hitter with average power. In the Texas League in 1932, though, he hit 39 homers with 139 RBI. These numbers pushed him into the role of Tiger first baseman in 1933.
In 1934, Greenberg led the league with 63 doubles and drove in 139 runs. In 1935, the Tigers won a world championship, as Hank won his first MVP Award, leading the league with 36 homers and 170 RBI. For the next four years the Tigers vainly chased the Yankees before sinking to the second division.
High RBI totals became Hank’s obsession and his special gift. His 183 in 1937 is the third highest total in history, and Greenberg’s career rate of .92 RBI per game is matched only by Gehrig in this century. Greenberg challenged Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record by clubbing 58 in 1938.
In 1940, Hammerin’ Hank led the Tigers to a pennant as he grabbed his second MVP Award when he led the league in doubles, homers, and of course, RBI. He also made the shift from first base to left field in order to accommodate Rudy York, and the originally apprehensive Greenberg found the outfield to his taste. Though Hank hit .357 and drove in six runs, the Tigers bowed to Cincinnati in seven games, and Greenberg played in only 19 games in 1941 before going to war.
He returned to lead the Tigers to the world championship in 1945, cracking a grand slam on September 30 to clinch the pennant. He hit .304 in the Series as Detroit ousted the Cubs. In 1946, he led the league in home runs and RBI, but it was to be his last good season.
A salary dispute sent Greenberg to Pittsburgh in 1947. He promptly retired, but Pittsburgh officials were desperate for his drawing power (the club had just been sold to a group that included Bing Crosby). The Pirates met Greenberg’s every demand, and Hank played one more year before retiring.
While with the Pirates, he worked extensively with Ralph Kiner. Hank also encouraged Jackie Robinson. Greenberg withstood his share of prejudice, being the greatest Jewish star of his day.
Here are Hank Greenberg's major league totals:
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