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Hank Greenberg, a Baseball Legend and American Hero: A Fan’s Look
There is an old Italian saying for newborn babies, whose appearances change more frequently than their diapers. It goes like this: "Nine months, nine faces."
Well, this Italian Yankees fan thought of that old saying when reading about the life of the great Detroit Tigers player Hank Greenberg in the book "Hank Greenberg the Story of My Life." Only for Greenberg, known as "The Gentle Giant," the saying must be changed to, "Seven years, seven lives." Between the years 1939 and 1945, Greenberg's life took seven distinct paths, roads if you will.
To quote Robert Frost, these were the roads "less traveled by," and each road is worth sharing.
The year is 1939, and athlete Hank Greenberg is playing first base for the Detroit Tigers (Greenberg's outstanding play at first base earned him the MVP Award in 1935). The Tigers finish the 1939 season in fifth place. For me, this is the first "road" Greenberg traveled. Of course, there is his childhood in the Bronx, and his siblings and parents (at 6 foot 4 inches tall, he towered over all of them). But I see 1939 as the start of Greenberg's "seven years, seven lives."
It is 1940, and the Detroit Tigers find themselves in the unenviable position of having nobody to play left field. They have a player named Rudy York, but he can't play left field. York could play first base, but they already have Greenberg at first. The Tigers are in a baseball conundrum. At spring training, Greenberg agrees to a move to left field, and receives $10,000 bonus if the move is successful. The change works. The Tigers win the pennant, Greenberg earns his bonus, and he is once again voted MVP.
I couldn't help but feel happy for Hank. No athlete wants to change positions. But Greenberg not only rose to the occasion, he made an extra $10,000 doing it. And, he goes down in the record books as the first position player to be awarded MVP at two different positions. Despite Greenberg's success, the Tigers go on to lose the World Series. But no matter, bring on 1941 because Greenberg's the man!
It is 1941, and Hank Greenberg is on a high, having secured the year's highest paying baseball contract. This two-time MVP Award winner is earning $55,000 a year to play left field for the Detroit Tigers. I couldn't help but think about what making $55,000 would mean to someone in 1941. That kind of salary was a huge amount of money, the kind of money that would make a person rich. Indeed, this was a nice road for Greenberg to travel down.
The Peacetime Draft is enacted. In the spring of 1941, Greenberg is drafted. He must leave baseball, and his $55,000 contract, behind. On May 1, 1941, Greenberg enters the United States Army earning $21 a month. Absorbing this information is difficult. I find it hard to fathom trading $55,000/year for $252/year. The only constant in life, it seems, is the unexpected. Greenberg was a genius at handling all things unexpected.
Congress passes a law changing the rules of the Peacetime Draft. Anyone drafted into the army during the Peacetime Draft can be discharged if they are over 30 years of age. Hank Greenberg is 30 years old. Greenberg is discharged from the army on Dec. 5, 1941, and already planning his return to baseball. Relief is the feeling I have upon hearing this news. Greenberg is back on the road to baseball.
Greenberg is out of the army, with a mind full of baseball dreams, for a scant two days when, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The United States is a country at war and Hank Greenberg enlists himself into the U.S. Army and spends the next 4 1/2 years fighting for his country. Are you riding this crazy roller coaster with me? Greenberg tells us in his book that he was out. Out of the army—for two whole days. War breaks out and he enlists! Upon hearing this, all I can think is, now that's a hero.
It is 1945, and World War II is over. Hank Greenberg is discharged that spring and immediately prepares himself for baseball. In August, he returns, ready to play, to the Detroit Tigers, after a five-year hiatus. It is during the last inning of the last game of the 1945 season that Greenberg smashes a game-winning, grand slam. The Tigers win the pennant. That same year, Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers go on to win the World Series. If this were a movie, it would nearly be unbelievable. How can the hero hit the grand slam? Win the pennant? Win the Series? But Greenberg did. It is real and it is, entirely, the stuff great movies are made of. Are you reading this, Marty Scorsese?
The years 1939-1945 saw many changes. Hank Greenberg, who was raised in the Bronx and idolized Lou Gehrig, was part of the change. From "Hank Greenberg the Story of My Life," I extrapolated the seven years between 1939 and 1945. It seems to me, in these seven years, Greenberg lived seven lives. Greenberg was an American hero and baseball legend, and this Yankees fan is grateful.
Greenberg, Hank and Ira Berkow, editor. The Story of My Life. Chicago, Illinois: Triumph Books, 1989.
I am a Yankees fan. I married a Yankees fan. Our three daughters are Yankees fans. The year is 2012 and once again, here come the Yankees.
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