Year Inducted: 1956 (BBWAA, ballot #9, 164/193)
Prejudice has been an ugly part of this country’s history, and has been since it was founded. More often than not, sports have been at the forefront of it, especially baseball. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were the first African American players in the game in the modern era, and had to suffer death threats, stay in separate hotels from the rest of the team, and faced a lot of hate and anger. Way back before them, in the late 1800s, many Irish players had to endure racial stereotypes (though not to the degree that the former had), including players like Tommy McCarthy and Hugh Duffy. In between those, athletes of Jewish backgrounds were treated poorly as well. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that there was a successful Jewish athlete. That man was Hank Greenberg.
Greenberg spent only 13 seasons in the bigs, but was able to put up a considerable resume. In his career, the original Hammerin’ Hank hit .313/.412/.605 with a wRC+ of 154. Among all-time hitters, his wRC+ ranks 21st, ahead of the other Hammerin’ Hank, Joe DiMaggio and Albert Pujols. Greenberg hit 331 home runs in his career, along with 379 doubles and 71 triples. He gained fame as a clutch RBI man, and true to form he drove in nearly 1300 runs and scored over 1000 times.
Greenberg tied Jimmie Foxx for the single season record for home runs by a right handed batter in 1938 with 58 (a 59th got rained out). It has long been speculated that a spike in his walk rate the last few weeks of the season meant that pitchers didn’t want him to break the homerun record because of his heritage. However, a closer look reveals a lot of games played against pitchers with poor control, so the high walk rate shouldn’t be suspicious.
Before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the first American League player to register for the draft was Greenberg. After failing his first physical due to flat feet, and wanting to avoid the backlash from the public, he requested a reexamination, and was enlisted into the army in early 1941. Following Pearl Harbor, of course, many players were either drafted or enlisted into the fight and lost years to their military service. Greenberg was no exception, losing time between 1941 and 1945 (playing less than 100 games between the two seasons) when he was in his early 30’s. Since Greenberg was consistently hitting at least 30 home runs a season, it can be estimated that he, like Johnny Mize, lost roughly 100 home runs to his service time.
Greenberg retired following a solid campaign with the Pirates, his lone year outside of Detroit as a player. It took 9 ballots for him to gain induction by the BBWAA, his first one being in 1948, when he didn’t receive a single vote! What were the BBWAA thinking? Was it his race? Possible, of course. Was it that he lost prime years to WWII so he didn’t have the numbers that guys like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx had? Most likely. Were there a lot of heavy ballots, with a lot of people to choose from? Kinda. The voting history between 1948 and his induction looks like this (with Greenberg’s percent):
1949: No one (43.8%)
1950: No one (38.1%)
1951: Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx (29.6%)
1952: Harry Heilmann and Paul Waner (32.1%)
1953: Dizzy Dean and Al Simmons (30.3%)
1955: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Lyons, Dazzy Vance and Gabby Hartnett (62.5%)
1956: Hank Greenberg (85%) and Joe Cronin
So that makes 10 guys that rank ahead of him (some just due to their positions and playing time), 5 that rank well below him, and two years where nothing happened. It’s mind boggling that Greenberg had to wait as long as he did, but thankfully the BBWAA got it right in 1956, even if 15% of the voters still didn’t think he was a Hall of Famer. Greenberg remains one of the top right handed hitters of all-time, and one of the most powerful players in history.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck, 10/4/16 This second baseman for the NY Yankees was inducted in 2009. No, not Bobby Richardson.