Although he missed time through injuries, military service, and early retirement, Greenberg still ranks as one of the most fearsome sluggers in baseball history. The powerful righthander played only the equivalent of nine-and-a-half seasons, yet produced outstanding career totals as well as exceptional season marks.
A native New Yorker, Greenberg was the son of Rumanian-born Jewish immigrants who owned a successful cloth-shrinking plant. Hank graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx, then attended New York University on an athletic scholarship for one semester before beginning his professional baseball career. The 6’4″ 215-lb Greenberg’s athletic success stemmed from size, strength, and hard work, more than native talent. His high school coach explained: “Hank was so big for his age and so awkward that he became painfully self-conscious. The fear of being made to look foolish drove him to practice constantly and, as a result, to overcome his handicaps.”
Greenberg tried out for the New York Giants but Giants Manager John McGraw, although constantly on the lookout for a Jewish star to attract New York’s large Jewish population and impressed by Greenberg’s powerful hitting, decided Hank was too clumsy and uncoordinated to help the Giants. Hank turned down a lucrative offer from the Yankees, realizing there would be little chance of making the ML with Lou Gehrig on first for the Bombers. He also rejected overtures from the Senators, who had Joe Judge. In January 1930 he signed with the Tigers.
After several minor league stops, he was called up to the Tigers in 1933. Still awkward in the field, though quick on his feet, he showed line-drive power, with 33 doubles, 12 homers, and a .301 batting average. In 1934 he cracked a league-leading 63 doubles and batted .339 with 26 homers and 139 RBI as the Tigers won the AL pennant. In the WS loss to the Gashouse Gang Cardinals, he hit .321 but struck out nine times.
The Tigers repeated as AL champs in 1935, spurred by Greenberg’s league-topping 36 homers and 170 RBI. He was named AL MVP. He suffered a broken wrist in the second game of the WS and watched from the sideline as the Tigers defeated the Cubs. Off to an excellent start in 1936, with 16 RBI in 12 games, he broke the same wrist in a collision at first base and missed the rest of the season, amid speculation that his career was over.
Instead, he rebounded with 183 RBI in 1937, the third-highest total ever. He also hit 40 homers and batted .337. The next season he made a determined assault on Babe Ruth‘s 60 home run record. With five games to go, he had 58, to tie Jimmie Foxx‘s record for righthanded hitters, but he was unable to add to that total. He set a record for most multi-homer games in a season, with eleven.
In 1940, Greenberg shifted from his hard-won first base position to left field to enable the Tigers to find a regular lineup spot for hard-hitting but poor-fielding Rudy York. The result was a Detroit pennant, breaking the Yankees’ streak of four straight pennants. Many credited Greenberg’s willingness and ability to learn a completely new position as the key factor in Detroit’s success. He hit .340 and led the AL in doubles (50), home runs (41), and RBI (150), and earned his second MVP award.
Greenberg, then a bachelor, was one of the first major leaguers inducted into the service, entering 19 games into the 1941 season. He was discharged from the army on December 5, 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He immediately enlisted as an officer candidate in the Air Corps. Hank served with distinction in the Far East until his discharge in mid-1945. He returned with a bang, with a home run in his first game. His grand slam on the final day of the season won the pennant for the Tigers. In the WS win over the Cubs, he hit two more homers and batted in seven runs.
He led the AL in homers (44) and RBI (127) again in 1946, but a salary dispute developed with the Tigers during the season. Rather than raise his salary, Detroit waived him out of the AL to Pittsburgh. Greenberg deeply resented learning of the deal from the radio rather than being informed in advance of the public announcement. The Pirates coaxed him into playing the 1947 season with a complicated contract that netted him between $100,000 and $145,000, making him the NL’s first $100,000 player. A bullpen was built in front of Forbes Field’s distant left field wall and fans quickly labeled it “Greenberg Gardens.” Although he hit a disappointing .249, he contributed 25 home runs and served as a gate instructor. More important, he served as hitting instructor and advisor to his protege and friend, young Ralph Kiner. When Greenberg retired after the 1947 season, the left field bullpen became known as “Kiner’s Korner.”
In 1948 Cleveland owner Bill Veeck hired Greenberg as farm system director. He became general manager in 1950 and built the team that derailed the Yankees’ string of pennants in 1954. Unable to purchase stock in the Indians, he moved to the White Sox as part owner and vice president as that team won the 1959 pennant. He retired from baseball in 1963 to become a successful investment banker.