#TBT Hank Greenberg: Detroit Tigers’ Original Hammerin Hank
By Matt Pelc
With apologies to Miguel Cabrera and Norm Cash, the best Detroit Tigers’ first baseman of all-time is the original “Hammerin’ Hank.” Before Hank Aaron earned that nickname in the 1960’s, Hank Greenberg clung to that distinction. Not only was he the best first baseman the Tigers have ever seen, he was arguably the best slugger for the franchise.
Greenberg is the subject of this week’s Throwback Thursday.
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The bulk of his Tigers’ career came from 1933 to 1946 with a four-year interruption for military service during WWII. Greenberg was just as good as other legends of the time such as Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, but today is often overlooked among the greats of that era. During his time, however, he was beloved for his game, as well as the way he practiced his faith.
Early on he had to balance baseball with his faith. One of few Jewish players of the era, Greenberg typically wrestled with the requirements of his religion to refrain from work on holidays when his team needed him. During the 1934 pennant race, Hank was beseeched with advice from Jews and rabbis across the country with conflicting words about playing on Rosh Hashanah. He ultimately decided to play, tallying the only two runs on homers for a 2-1 victory over Boston, but sat out on Yom Kippur nine days later.
Greenberg had a cup of coffee with the club in 1930 and came up full-time in 1933. He helped the Tigers win their first pennant in 25 years in his second full year in the majors, hitting .339 and launching 26 home runs. The following year, in 1935, he led baseball with 36 homers and brought the very first World Series title to Detroit.
After an injury-shortened 1936 season, Greenberg reached the peak of his career in 1937 and 1938. In those two years, he mashed 98 homers, including the highest single-season total in Tigers’ history, 58, in 1938. He fell just short of Babe Ruth‘s then nine-year old record of 60 homers.
Greenberg was the first American League player drafted into military service in 1940 at the age of 29. He was honorably discharged from service just two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but promptly reenlisted. Achieving the rank of captain, Hank served in the China-Burma-India theater and was enlisted for total of 47 months, the most for any major league player.
He returned to the Tigers on July 1, 1945 and homered in his first game in nearly four years. In 78 games during the 1945 season, Greenberg launched 13 homers and hit .311. He hit a pennant-winning grand slam on the final day of the season, and contributed two homers with an average of .300 over a seven-game World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs.
He’d hit another 47 homers for the Tigers in 1946, but a salary dispute with the notoriously stingy Tigers’ management team of the 1940’s ended in Greenberg being sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had another great year in 1947, but chose to retire and move to a front office role in Cleveland.
Hank Greenberg finished his 13-year major league career with a .313 average, 331 homers and 1,276 RBIs. He was elected to the Baseball Hall-of-Fame in 1956 and had his number five retired by the Tigers in 1983.
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