In 1930, a young Henry “Hank” Greenberg (1/1/1911 - 9/4/1986) had one major league at-bat with the Detroit Tigers. Three years later, he came up from the minor leagues to stay in the 1933 season, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office as president of the United States and Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Greenberg batted .301 in 1933, the first of eight consecutive .300-plus seasons.
In 1934, the twenty-three-year-old Tigers first baseman was on his way to a .339 batting average, twenty-six home runs and 139 runs batted in. Greenberg's numbers caused quite a sensation at the time as no Tigers player had ever hit twenty-six home runs or drove in 139 baserunners, in a single season.
As the '34 baseball season wore on, and the Tigers aimed for their first pennant in twenty-five years, Jews and non-Jews wondered if Greenberg would be playing or praying on Rosh Hashanah. Greenberg decided to pray at Congregation Shaarey Zedek on Chicago Blvd., Detroit's only Conservative synagogue at the time. A flurry of phone calls from the Tigers manager, owner, and some teammates, convinced him to play that day. He belted two home runs giving the Tigers a 2-1 victory.
Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, Greenberg did not play, instead attending High Holiday services. Even though the Tigers had the pennant all but wrapped up, this decision was symbolic, coming at a time when Jews were suffering economically in the Great Depression and when there was open anti-Semitism. The Tigers lost the 1934 World Series but won the Fall Classic the following season as Greenberg's thirty-six home runs and 170 runs batted in led both leagues.
Through the 1930s and in 1940, Greenberg’s forty-one home runs and 150 RBI led the American League. In May of '41 he reported for military service and was discharged in December as Congress passed a law releasing men over the age of twenty-eight. But the patriotic Greenberg reenlisted a short time later after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In his first major league game in over four years, on July 1, 1945, the thirty-four-year-old Greenberg hit a home run in front of a capacity home crowd. The season ended with yet another Greenberg home run, clinching the pennant and sending the Tigers to the World Series.
Greenberg left the Detroit Tigers for the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1946 season, where he played his final season. He retired in 1947 but, the following year, joined the front office of the Cleveland Indians eventually becoming general manager and part-owner. In 1956, Greenberg became the first Jewish baseball player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Greenberg left Cleveland in 1957 and resurfaced as part owner of the Chicago White Sox in 1959. After selling his interest in the White Sox in the early '60s, Greenberg enjoyed a successful business career and eventually moved to Beverly Hills, California.
Greenberg returned to Detroit in June of 1983 as the Tigers ceremoniously retired his Number 5 uniform. The greatest Jewish ballplayer of all-time died in 1986 at age seventy-five.
By Irwin Cohen, author, Echoes of Detroit's Jewish Communities: A History. In 1983, Cohen interviewed Hank Greenberg and was on the field for the uniform retirement ceremony.
Learn More: Congregation Shaarey Zedek