Hank Greenberg - Early Major League Career

Early Major League Career

In seven of the nine years in which he was active, Greenberg was one of the dominant players in the game. He has the seventh-highest slugging percentage lifetime of any ballplayer in major league history, at .605, ahead of such sluggers as Mark McGwire and Joe DiMaggio.

In 1930 he was the youngest player in the majors when he first broke in, at 19.

In 1933, he rejoined the Tigers and hit .301 while driving in 87 runs. At the same time, he was third in the league in strikeouts (78).

In 1934, his second major-league season, he hit .339 and helped the Tigers reach their first World Series in 25 years. He led the league in doubles, with 63 (the 4th-highest all-time in a single season), and extra base hits (96). He was 3rd in the AL in slugging percentage (.600) – behind Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig, but ahead of Babe Ruth, and in RBIs (139), 6th in batting average (.339), 7th in home runs (26), and 9th in on base percentage (.404).

Late in the 1934 season, he announced that he would not play on September 10, which was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, or on September 19, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Fans grumbled, "Rosh Hashanah comes every year but the Tigers haven't won the pennant since 1909." Greenberg did considerable soul-searching, and discussed the matter with his rabbi; finally he relented and agreed to play on Rosh Hashanah, but stuck with his decision not to play on Yom Kippur. Dramatically, Greenberg hit two home runs in a 2–1 Tigers victory over Boston on Rosh Hashanah. The next day's Detroit Free Press ran the Hebrew lettering for "Happy New Year" across its front page. Columnist and poet Edgar A. Guest expressed the general opinion in a poem titled "Speaking of Greenberg," in which he used the Irish (and thus Catholic) names Murphy and Mulroney. The poem ends with the lines "We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat / But he's true to his religion—and I honor him for that." The complete text of the poem is at the end of Greenberg's biography page at the website of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. The Detroit press was not so kind regarding the Yom Kippur decision, nor were many fans, but Greenberg in his autobiography recalled that he received a standing ovation from congregants at the Shaarey Zedek synagogue when he arrived. Absent Greenberg, the Tigers lost to the New York Yankees, 5–2. The Tigers went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1934 World Series.

In 1935 Greenberg led the league in RBIs (170), total bases (389), and extra base hits (98), tied Foxx for the AL title in home runs (36), was 2nd in the league in doubles (46), slugging percentage (.628), was 3rd in the league in triples (16), and in runs scored (121), 6th in on base percentage (.411) and walks (87), and was 7th in batting average (.328). He also led the Tigers to their first World Series title. (However, he broke his wrist in the second game.) He was unanimously voted the American League's Most Valuable Player. He set a record (still standing) of 103 RBIs at the All-Star break – but was not selected to the AL All-Star Game roster.

In 1936 Greenberg re-broke his wrist in a collision with Jake Powell of the Washington Senators in April of that year. He had accumulated 16 RBIs in 12 games before his injury.

In 1937 Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team. On September 19, 1937, he hit the first-ever homer into the center field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. He led the AL by driving in 183 runs (3rd all-time, behind Hack Wilson in 1930 and Lou Gehrig in 1931), and in extra base hits (103), while batting .337 with 200 hits. He was 2nd in the league in home runs (40), doubles (49), total bases (397), slugging percentage (.668), and walks (102), 3rd in on base percentage (.436), and 7th in batting average (.337). Still, Greenberg came in only 3rd in the vote for MVP.

A prodigious home run hitter, Greenberg narrowly missed breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938, when he was again voted to the All-Star Team and hit 58 home runs, leading the league for the second time. That year, he set the major league record with 11 multi-homer games. Sammy Sosa tied Greenberg's mark in 1998. After having been passed over for the All-Star team in 1935 and being left on the bench for the 1937 game, Greenberg refused to participate in the 1938 contest. In 1938 he homered in four consecutive at-bats over two games. He matched what was then the single-season home run record by a right-handed batter, (Jimmy Foxx, 1932); the mark would stand for 66 years until it was broken by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Greenberg also had a 59th home run washed away in a rainout. It has been long speculated that Greenberg was intentionally walked late in the season to prevent him from breaking Ruth's record, but Greenberg dismissed this speculation, calling it "crazy stories." Nonetheless, Howard Megdal has calculated that in September 1938, Greenberg was walked in over 20% of his plate appearances, the highest percentage in his career by far. Megdal's article cited this walk percentage statistic as evidence of American League teams not wanting Greenberg to break Babe Ruth's record due to anti-Semitism. However, an examination of the box scores indicate this spike in walks was due to a few games against Saint Louis Browns' pitchers with horrific control, not a general league tendency.

In 1938, Greenberg led the league in runs scored (144) and at-bats per home run (9.6), tied for the AL lead in walks (119), was second in RBIs (146), slugging percentage (.683), and total bases (380), and third in OBP (.438) and set a still-standing major league record of 39 homers in his home park, the newly reconfigured Briggs Stadium. He also set a major-league record with 11 multiple-home run games. However, he came in third in the vote for MVP.

In 1939 Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team for the third year in a row. He was second in the American League in home runs (33) and strikeouts (95), third in doubles (42) and slugging percentage (.622), fourth in RBIs (112), sixth in walks (91), and ninth in on base percentage (.420).

After the 1939 season ended, Greenberg was asked by general manager Jack Zeller to take a salary cut of $5,000 ($84,000 today) as a result of his off year in power and run production. To top it off, he was asked to move to the outfield to accommodate Rudy York, who was one of the best young hitters of his generation, but was tried at catcher, third base and the outfield and proved to be a defensive liability wherever they played him. Greenberg in turn demanded a $10,000 dollar bonus if he mastered the outfield, stating he was the one taking the risk in learning a new position. Greenberg received his bonus at the end of spring training.

In 1940, Greenberg was voted to the All-Star team for the 4th year in a row. He led the league in home runs (41; for the third time in 6 years), RBIs (150), doubles (50), total bases (384), extra base hits (99), at-bats per home run (14.0), and slugging percentage (.670; 44 points ahead of Joe DiMaggio). He was second in the league behind Ted Williams in runs scored (129) and OBP (.433), all while batting .340 (5th-best in the AL). He led the Tigers to a pennant, and won his 2nd American League MVP award, becoming the first player to win an MVP award at two different positions.

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