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David Brown

Did Hank Greenberg being Jewish cost him a shot at 60 homers?

Big League Stew

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I can't quite get with Howard Megdal's article in the New York Times that says anti-semitism cost Hank Greenberg the single-season home-run record in 1938.

Greenberg hit 58 homers that season, two short of Babe Ruth's record, which was set 11 years earlier. Megdal offers proof, chiefly in three forms, that Greenberg wuz robbed:

One, that Greenberg, who was Jewish, was generally a victim of anti-semitism. This has been confirmed many times over. No argument from me.

Two, that Greenberg's walk totals were artificially high in '38, especially down the stretch as he approached Ruth's mark. Megdal uses recently published game logs from the invaluable Web site Retrosheet.org to buttress his case.

Three, that when others have pursued Ruth's 60-homer mark and, later, Roger Maris' 61 homers, those individuals did not experience inflated walk rates as Greenberg did.

So, did the Hebrew Hammer simply come up short? Or, were some opponents pitching around Greenberg because they were determined to prevent a Jew from breaking the Sultan of Swat's record?

Howard Megdal writes in the New York Times:

Overall, Greenberg walked in 15.9 percent of his plate appearances through the end of August 1938. In September, that rate jumped to 20.4 percent. His walk rate was 14.5 percent in 1937 and 15 percent in 1939.

Something changed down the stretch in 1938, and it was not in Greenberg's approach.

He said he felt "if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler." So he had compelling reasons not to take a walk.

When Jimmie Foxx had chased Ruth's record six seasons earlier, his walk rate jumped only slightly in September. Foxx also finished with 58 homers in '32.

As Megdal points out, there's no way of knowing what was in those pitchers' hearts. However, the writer sure seems to want to find proof that anti-semites cost Greenberg a shot at Ruth's record.

Without reviewing film of all of Greenberg's at-bats (to check for irregularities) and without someone having asked a decent sample size of opposing pitchers tough questions about their personal feelings toward Jews (and getting honest and truthful responses) we're never really going to know to what degree anti-semitism played a role.

Greenberg, who was painfully aware that many didn't like him because of his heritage and religion, never bought the talk that anti-semitism cost him Ruth's record.

"Pure baloney," Greenberg says in his autobiography, which Megdal quotes.

Greenberg goes on to say:

"The fact is quite the opposite: So far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers."

His own explanation for the failure to break the record is that he was never in Ruth's class as a home-run hitter. "I averaged around 35 (home runs)," he wrote, "so this was just a freak season for me."

Anything that publicizes the career of Hank Greenberg, I support. Among guys before my time, he might be my favorite player. The "Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is a great baseball movie, and it's free to watch online.

I also admire Megdal's attempt to assign value to the real anti-semitism Greenberg and other Jews faced. I'm not sure he's succeeded entirely, though the correlation is at least suspicious.

But, if Greenberg himself didn't buy it — and the guy's not exactly a self-hating Holocaust denier — then I'm with Hank. Megdal's work is not quite Kosher.

BLS Hat tips: Dan Levy at The Sporting Blog and Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk.

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