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Hank Greenberg

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Detroit Tigers 1930-41; 45-46
Pittsburgh Pirates 1947

As hard as it seems to believe today, the Detroit Tigers were once an American League powerhouse.  In a twelve season span (1934-45), the franchise won four American League pennants and two World Series.  Much of this success can be directly attributed to Hank Greenberg, who led the Tigers through an era of excellence unmatched in franchise history.

Born on January 1, 1911 in New York City, Greenberg grew up in a comfortable, middle class environment provided by his father's successful cloth-shrinking business.  Tall and gangly as a youngster, he was self-conscious and insecure.

Before entering college, Greenberg was able to get a tryout with the hometown Giants.  Manager John McGraw, despite his desire for a Jewish star that would energize the city's large Jewish population, felt that Greenberg was to clumsy and uncoordinated to play in the field.  Instead, the youngster accepted an athletic scholarship at NYU.

The baseball bug had already taken it's hold on Greenberg however, and after barely a half year of college, he inked a $9,000 contract with the Detroit Tigers.  His father, David, objected to his son's career choice at first, but when he found out that ballplayers could make comparable salaries to doctors and lawyers, he reluctantly gave his approval.

After one hitless at bat in 1930, Greenberg was sent to the minors for seasoning.  Three years later, he joined the Tigers for good at the age of 23.  After a promising rookie campaign, (.301, 12 HR, and 87 RBI in 117 games) the young slugger led Detroit to its first pennant since 1909, batting .339 with 26 HR, 139 RBI, and a league leading 63 doubles in 1934.  Although the Tigers fell to Dizzy Dean and the "Gashouse Gang" St. Louis Cardinals in a thrilling 7 game World Series, Greenberg performed well in his first Fall Classic, hitting .321 with 7 RBI.

In 1935 the first baseman paced the circuit with 36 HR and 170 RBI and was awarded the AL MVP.  The Tigers meanwhile, captured their second straight AL Pennant and defeated the Chicago Cubs in 6 games to win the franchise's first world title.  Greenberg however, injured his wrist in a collision at home plate in Game 2, and was unable to participate for the remainder of the Series.

Early in the 1936 season, that same wrist was injured again in a collision, this time at first base.  The reigning MVP was limited to just 12 games that season.  Greenberg returned in 1937 and posted eye-popping numbers: .337, 40 HR, and an AL record 183 RBI.  In 1938 he became the first man to challenge the most hallowed record in the sport.  With five games to go, Greenberg's home run total stood at 58.  Whether it was anti-Semitism, a cold streak, or a combination thereof, he was unable to hit another long ball that season.

After his statistics dipped a bit in 1939 (.312, 33 HR, 112 RBI), Tiger's brass forced their leader to move to left field to accommodate prospect Rudy York, who was less mobile than Greenberg.  Instead of sulking, the veteran kept hitting, leading the AL in home runs (41), RBI (150), slugging percentage (.670), and doubles (50).  On the strength of those numbers, Greenberg earned his second MVP, and the Tigers won another pennant.

Greenberg continued his stellar play against the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series,  hitting .357 and driving in six runs.  It wasn't enough to secure victory however, as the Reds upended Detroit in 7 games.

Greenberg had barely begun the 1941 season, when Uncle Sam came calling.  Although he was discharged just days prior to the Japanese ambush of Pearl Harbor, Greenberg quickly re-enlisted after the attack.

The 34-year-old returned to the field during the 1945 season, and helped the Tigers secure a fourth AL pennant.  This time, Greenberg was healthy for the entire Series and Detroit was victorious in seven games over the Cubs.  Always a clutch post season player, "Hammerin' Hank" hit .304 with 7 RBI in the Series.

1946 would be Greenberg's final season in Detroit.  After leading the AL in HR (44) and RBI (127), he was released following the season after a dispute with management.  Set to retire, Pittsburgh owner John Galbreath persuaded the veteran slugger to play other season, offering $100,000 contract and agreeing to move in the left field wall at Forbes Field.

The 36-year-old posted solid but unspectacular numbers in 1947, his lone season as Pirate.  Following the season, he retired.  Greenberg's career totals include a .313 batting average, 331 HR, and 1,276 RBI in 1,394 games.  He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956.

After his playing days, Greenberg served in the front office of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.  He made an attempt to purchase the expansion Los Angeles Angels with Bill Veeck in 1959, but lost out to Gene Autry's group.  After returning to his native New York in 1966, the former baseball star made a fortune on the stock market before moving to Beverly Hills in 1974.

In 1985 Greenberg was diagnosed with cancer, and had a kidney removed.  On September 4, 1986 Hank Greenberg died in his sleep at the age of 75.

-David Zingler, February 2004

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