The Original Hammering Hank

New Year’s day 2011 will be the centenary anniversary of the birth of Hank Greenberg. The pending milestone provides the occasion of David Dalin’s essay/tribute to Greenberg in the Weekly Standard.
The entire essay is worth reading. Greenberg proved himself to be an exemplary American several times over in the course of his remarkable career. I was particulary struck by Dalin’s account of Greenberg’s military service at the height of Greenberg’s career:

The 1941 season was historic, with Joe DiMaggio hitting in 56 straight games and Ted Williams batting over .400, while Hank Greenberg went to war. The Tigers first baseman was coming off a banner 1940 campaign, having led the American League with 41 home runs and 150 RBIs, while batting .340, and was once again voted the American League MVP. He hoped to match or better those numbers in ’41, but only 19 games into the new season, Greenberg’s baseball career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps, the first American League player to be drafted into the military in World War II. Although he missed most of the historic 1941 baseball season and found his salary cut from $55,000 a year to $21 a month, Greenberg was never bitter or resentful. Quite the contrary: As Greenberg told a reporter for Life magazine, “It wasn’t as much of a sacrifice as it appeared. .  .  . I never asked for a deferment. I made up my mind to go when I was called. My country comes first.” Three months later, Congress decided that men over 28 years old were exempt from military service and, on December 5, 1941, Greenberg, age 30, was honorably discharged.
Two days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting Greenberg to reenlist, the first major league player to do so. Greenberg was widely admired for his patriotism, especially since at age 30 he was exempt from military service. North Carolina senator Joshua Bailey echoed the sentiments of baseball fans throughout the country when, in praising Greenberg’s military service, he remarked, “He’s a bigger hero than when he was knocking home runs.” Greenberg could have had a stateside job as an athletic instructor, but he volunteered for combat, serving in the China-Burma-India theater with the Twentieth Bomber command, the first B-29 bomber unit to go overseas. Now he would “fight the Nazis with a B-29 instead of his bat.”
For American Jews, as for many baseball fans generally, Greenberg took on almost epic proportions: He served in the military for 45 months, longer than any other major league player, missing almost four complete seasons, and half of another, before returning to the Detroit lineup on July 1, 1945. Never one to disappoint his fans–and the stands were filled to capacity that day to welcome him back–Greenberg hit a home run. Even more dramatically, he hit a ninth-inning grand slam to win the pennant on the last day of the season, and finished his shortened 78-game season with a .311 batting average, before leading the Tigers to victory over the Cubs in the 1945 World Series.

Dalin returns to the theme of Greenberg’s service in his conclusion:

Hank Greenberg should be remembered above all as baseball’s greatest patriot. That the American League’s reigning home run leader and MVP in 1940 put service to his country above his love for baseball, sacrificing most of the historic 1941 baseball season to serve in the military, and then became the first major league player to enlist after Pearl Harbor, remains the most compelling part of his enduring legacy. In sacrificing much of his baseball career to serve his country, he displayed true heroism. What Donald Kagan said of Joe DiMaggio can just as easily be said of Hank Greenberg: “A baseball legend,” he was “also an American hero, .  .  . an American who quietly went to serve his country when called to war, .  .  . who represented the virtues and ideals of his era.”

Dalin’s essay prompted me to seek out “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” the interesting 1998 documentary that memorialized Greenberg’s story on film. It is availalble for viewing in its entirety at the link, but Dalin’s essay gets to the heart of the story more concisely than the film.


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