To Play or Not to Play – Hank Greenberg
Right there on the cover of the Sports pages in the Detroit Free Press in Hebrew letters it read: Rosh Hashana: הנשל הבום בחבח. And so to you, Mr. Greenberg, the Tiger fans say: “Leshono tovo tikosayvu!” which means “Happy New Year.”
The year was 1934. America was struggling through the worst of the depression. Detroit, America’s 4th largest city, was the center of anti-Semitism with locals Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin and the Black Legion ruling the day. While the city faced a 45% unemployment rate, sports gave people hope and a chance to escape.
On September 10th, the Detroit Tigers were standing in first place. The Tigers had not gone to the playoffs since the early years of Ty Cobb in 1909, and in 1933 they finished in 5th place, 25 games behind the Washington Senators. The Tigers were sitting 4 games up over the Yankees with 20 games to go. The Yankees powered by Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez were coming on strong winning 4 out of their last 5 games while the Tigers had dropped 3 out of the last 5. The Tigers were being tested.
The hottest hitter on the Tigers was none other than Hank Greenberg. In his last at bat, he led the Tigers to victory with a clutch hit in the bottom of the 10th inning. He was red hot, hitting .376 with 19 RBIs over the last 25 games. The nice Jewish boy from New York, was 21 years old and in his second year in the big leagues. He had been taunted and called every name in the book in his short career. But now his team, his city needed him, but the night was also Rosh Hashanah. While Hank played during the Sabbath, he knew playing during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be a shanda to his orthodox parents and he had sat out in previous years. Greenberg’s decision became national speculation as he was torn between his commitment to his faith and his commitment to his city and team.
On the morning of Rosh Hashana, Greenberg attended services at Shaarey Zedek, Detroit’s oldest conservative congregation. He went to the stadium but when he arrived, he didn’t suit up and he skipped batting practice. After meeting with the starting pitcher, Eldon Auker, he decided to suit up and face the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox struck first going up 1-0 in their first at bat. The game was a pitcher’s duel and stayed tied until the 7th inning with one out and a 2-2 count, Hank crushed a breaking ball into the left field stands. The score remained deadlocked 1-1 going into the bottom of the 9th with Greenberg leading off. On the second pitch he launched a home run toward left center and out of the stadium. Tigers win 2-1! The next day the Detroit Free Press headline stated, “A Happy New Year for Everyone.”
After the game Greenberg was quoted “I did a lot of praying before the game and I am going to do a lot of it after, but certainly the Good Lord did not let me down today. I was afraid I would be knocked down a couple of times by pitched balls, but once I was in there, I had only one thing to do—keep swinging.”
Detroit Free Press writer Iffty the Dopester penned,” I do not know anything about the law of the most ancient Church in the world. That’s all for students of the Talmud, but I’m here to testify in the world as a baseball expert that the two hits he made in that ball game were strictly kosher.”
Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, Hank Greenberg went back to his synagogue and did not play and the Tigers lost. The following Edgar A. Guest poem that was published in the Detroit Free Press best describes how the city felt.
The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame, for they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name; And the Murphys and Mulrooneys said they never dreamed they’d see a Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.
In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play. “He makes me think of Casey!” Old man Murphy dared to say; And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made, the respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year, when Hank Greenberg came to bat and made two home runs off Pitcher Rhodes — they cheered like mad for that.
“Came Yom Kippur — holy fast day worldwide 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!’”
That year the Tigers made it to the World Series losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games. The following year the Tigers won the World Series and Hank Greenberg was the American league’s MVP.