Happy New Year, Hank!

Happy New Year, Hank!

September 10, 1934

“What the hell is the matter with you? You sick?” — Marv Owen

Tigers third baseman Marv Owen didn’t understand why Hank Greenberg, the 23-year-old anchor of the Detroit lineup, still hadn’t suited up for the game. With the second-place Yankees just four games behind the Tigers, there was no way Greenberg would miss a key contest against the Red Sox. Or was there?

Like most of Greenberg’s teammates, Owen didn’t realize that September 10, 1934 was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

“The team was fighting for first place, and I was probably the only batter in the lineup who was not in a slump.” remembered Greenberg in his autobiography. “But in the Jewish religion, it is traditional that one observe the holiday solemnly, with prayer. One should not engage in work or play. And I wasn’t sure what to do.”

The issue sparked debate in Detroit’s Jewish community and baffled Greenberg’s teammates, many of whom were unfamiliar with Jewish customs. I came from Kansas and I never knew what a Jew was,” explained teammate Eldon Auker, the scheduled pitcher. “The papers said Hank wasn’t going to play because it was a Jewish holiday. That’s when I found out what Rosh Hashanah was.”

Added Auker: “He didn’t take batting practice. I was a little upset because I thought I’m going to pitch a ball game without Hank.

While his teammates swatted fungoes, Greenberg was in the dugout, still wavering, wracked with guilt. He had promised his parents earlier in the year that he would not take the field on the holiday, but the Tigers obviously needed him. “Suppose I stay out of the game and we lost the pennant by one game?” he asked a reporter. Adding some measure of justification, Detroit’s chief rabbi had opined earlier in the week that since Rosh Hashanah was a festive holiday, Greenberg would not be out of line if he chose to play.

And so he did, celebrating the new year with two solo shots off the Red Sox. His second homer, a titanic blast off Boston’s Gordon Rhodes in the ninth, won the game for the Tigers, 2-1. Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times wrote that Greenberg’s round-trippers “were propelled by a force born of the desperation and pride of a young Jew who turned his back on the ancient ways of his race and creed to help his teammates.” Shaver added a quote from the young slugger: “The good Lord did not let me down.”

Even though a smattering of anti-Semetic epithets could be heard from the Navin Field stands, The Detroit Free Press greeted Greenberg the following day with a banner headline on the front page: “Happy New Year, Hank” — in Yiddish.

But Greenberg’s joy was tempered by guilt. “I caught hell from my fellow parishioners, I caught hell from some rabbis,” he told Owen the following day, “and I don’t know what to do. It’s ten days until the next holiday — Yom Kippur.” On the Day of Atonement — a fast day even more solemn than Rosh Hashanah — a rabbi would be hard-pressed to justify one of his congregants playing ball. The same holiday would cause the great Sandy Koufax — only mildly observant — to skip a World Series start in 1965.

In the end, there was no decision to make. The Tigers pulled away from the Yankees in the AL pennant race, and Greenberg’s father laid down the law. “Yom Kippur was different,” explained David Greenberg. “I put my foot down and Henry obeyed.” When Greenberg arrived at the synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, the congregation stopped the service and applauded their hero.

As Edgar Guest would write in the Free Press:

“Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day world wide over to the Jew,
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, ‘We shall lose the game today!
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!'”

Happy New Year, Hank!