This Day in Jewish History / Hank Greenberg at Bat

Baseball Hall-of-famer Hank Greenberg, the first Jew to be named Most Valuable Player, started his major league career on this day in 1930 with the Detroit Tigers.

On this day in 1930, baseball player Hank Greenberg made his first appearance in the major leagues. Greenberg is remembered as the first Jewish player to make the ranks of baseball superstars – he was the first to be named Most Valuable Player in either the American or National leagues – as well as for his decision not to play on Yom Kippur.

Born Henry Benjamin Greenberg in 1911, the future Detroit Tigers first baseman grew up in the Bronx. In 1929, he turned down a contract from the New York Yankees because the team already had the legendary Lou Gehrig playing first base, but after a year at university, Greenberg signed with the Tigers. By 1934, Greenberg was batting .339 and played a key role in making the Tigers contenders for the American League pennant.

As the High Holidays approached that year, he initially announced that he would not play on Rosh Hashanah, but after a public outcry and a consultation with a (Reform) rabbi, Greenberg revised his decision, leading a local paper to state in a headline: “Talmud clears Greenberg for holiday play.” In the game, against the Boston Red Sox, Greenberg hit two home runs, leading the Tigers to a 2-1 victory and eliciting a front page banner headline in the Detroit Free Press with Hebrew letters spelling out “Happy New Year.” Ten days later, however, on Yom Kippur – after it was clear that his team had clinched the American League title – Greenberg chose to spend the holiday in synagogue rather than on the field. The poet Edgar A. Guest responded with a verse that ended: “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.” Nonetheless, the Tigers lost that game to the Yankees and, later in the World Series, they went down to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

Hank Greenberg served 45 months in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and returned to the Tigers mid-season in 1945. He retired in 1947 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956. In a relatively brief major league career of 1,394 games, Greenberg’s overall batting average was an impressive .313.  He hit 331 homeruns and 1,276 RBIs over his career. Hank Greenberg died in 1986.