A Bronx Kid Takes Aim At The Babe’s Record

Posted

At the start of the baseball season 80 years ago, few people imagined that Detroit Tigers’ Hank Greenberg would come close to matching the most hallowed sports record at the time, the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927.

Birdie Tebbets, one of those baseball lifers, was on the Tigers at the time and said that aside from Jackie Robinson, no one in the game had it tougher than Greenberg, a kid from the Bronx born to Jewish immigrants.

The first baseman who ended up playing in the midwest endured anti-Semitic jibes from opposing players and fans throughout his career, but he had also earned a modicum of respect from his detractors when he put principles ahead of personal gain. In 1934, he famously sat out a crucial game because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The Tigers were having a bad season in 1938 after years of champion-caliber play. By the time the All-Star break rolled around, Greenberg was the only real story, quietly accumulating home runs until someone noticed he might actually have a chance to best Ruth’s “unapproachable” total.

While all this was going on, the twilight hours were descending over Europe as talk of war started to make headlines. Greenberg’s parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Romania in the early 1900s, but they still had family in “the old country” and anxiety was no doubt running high.

Still, the Detroit slugger went about his business, sending baseballs into the stands and serving as a role model for Jewish kids. As the round-trippers piled up, beat writers and columnists began to take note and stories about the big strapping kid from New York moved from the sports section to the front page.

The Jewish media, which rarely reported on doings in the sports world, began to take note as well, offering primers on the game for the uninitiated. Like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Greenberg served to counter Germany’s claims of the inferiority of the non-Aryan.

When he hit upon a brief slump in August, the pundits wondered if the pressure was getting to him. Had they asked, he might have told them that hitting a baseball was nothing compared with what millions of others were going through. But they didn’t ask. In those days, athletes were expected to do their jobs and keep their mouths shut. Opining on political issues was beyond their pay grade.

Greenberg’s offense began to pick up again as the season wound down. He had 58 home runs when the Tigers faced the Cleveland Indians for their final series. A rainout necessitated a doubleheader on the last day of the season.

Greenberg went homerless against Indians’ wunderkind Bob Feller in the first game. In the nightcap, time just ran out. The home plate umpire apologized when he called the game after seven innings because of the encroaching darkness. Night baseball was not yet commonplace.

“Sorry, Hank,” he said, “but this is as far as I can go.”

“That’s all right,” replied the weary strong man, “This is as far as I can go, too.”

There are those who believe to this day that pitchers didn’t give him anything good to hit, not wanting a Jew to break Ruth’s revered mark, but Greenberg – ever the mensch -- denied those claims, saying that he simply ran out of gas.

Ron Kaplan is the author of three sports books including “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” (Sports Publishing). His books are available for sale on our site. Ron can be contacted at: ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf@gmail.com   Twitter @RonKaplanNJ

Other articles enjoyed: Worst Years In American Baseball, Reggie Jackson: Mr. October, Jim Bouton & Ball Four, The Death of Stickball, Baseball & Fidel Castro, A 42-Year Old Rookie Takes The Mound

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

MOTOR RACING July 20, 2008  Lewis Hamilton wins the German Grand Prix driving for McLaren-Mercedes. The victory was Hamilton’s second consecutive triumph after taking the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. At season’s end, the 23-year old would become the then youngest and only black racer in F1 history to win a championship title.

20 years ago

GOLF July 17, 1998  Mark O’Meara shoots a 280 to win the 127th British Open at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club. In a playoff against fellow American Brian Watts, O’Meara claimed his second major championship of the year after topping the Masters three months earlier. Those victories were the only major titles of his 34 professional wins.

30 years ago

HOCKEY July 16, 1988  In a lavish event dubbed by the Canadian press as the “Royal Wedding”, Wayne Gretsky weds actress Janet Jones; the couple would have 5 children. After 20 seasons in professional hockey, Gretsky wrapped up his career in 1999 playing for 4 teams and producing more goals and assists than any other player in NHL history.

40 years ago

BASEBALL  July 17, 1978  Yankee Manager Billy Martin and slugger Reggie Jackson clash at a Royals game after Jackson tried to bunt when he was told to hit away, causing Martin to suspend him. A week later, Martin himself would resign following 3 tumultuous years with the NY club, but the troubled and controversial manager would eventually return.