Friday, April 17, 2015

Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson

One of the many stories and anecdotes that stand out concerning Jackie Robinson and his first year in the majors is his meeting the soon to be retired former Detroit Tiger (and at the time Pittsburgh Pirate) Hank Greenberg.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to Forbes Field for the first time during Robinson's rookie season in May 1947, there were many in both the stands and the opposing dugout who went after Jackie with racial slurs and epithets. Greenberg, who was Jewish and raised in the Bronx, knew first hand how cruel and hateful people could be in terms of their words and actions.

Greenberg came up to the Majors in the 1930's where anti-Semitic slurs could by regularly heard throughout the league by both fans and opposing players. Not only was verbal abuse the norm but physical abuse was often employed as a method to both intimidate and humiliate. Jackie Robinson was continually thrown at by opposing pitchers in his rookie season. During the 1930's, Jewish players (including Hank Greenberg) were the ones being thrown at and beaned. To give you an example of the world that Jewish ballplayers (in general) and Hank Greenberg specifically played in, the book The Baseball Talmud by Howard Megdal states:
But measuring Greenberg has to move beyond simply baseball. For instance, through all of the Jackie Robinson festivities, a secondary point has frequently been made that, while the struggle to integrate baseball was unimaginably difficult, Brooklyn was the perfect place, politically and culturally, for such an endeavor to take place. By contrast, the world, and in particular, the major league city that Hank Greenberg called home when he got to the big leagues, was arguably the toughest time and place a Jew could have gone to establish himself in the public eye. Greenberg got to Detroit to stay in 1933—the year Adolf Hitler took over in Germany. Detroit’s most famous citizen, in fact the city’s raison d’ĂȘtre, was Henry Ford. Ford published a newspaper that unceasingly railed against Jews, and a collection of the newspaper’s columns was published in book form as The International Jew—the World’s Foremost Problem. Reportedly, Hitler was one of his readers and admirers. Ford went on to blame “international Jewish bankers” for World War II after receiving the highest award a foreigner could receive from Hitler’s government. (At least Ford was nice enough to suffer a heart attack when shown films of the Nazi concentration camps, according to a collaborator of his—I suppose it was the least he could do.)
Along with Ford’s presence shadowing Greenberg’s city was the leading voice of reactionary public Catholicism in the 1930s, the Reverend Charles Coughlin, whose weekly radio sermons were estimated to reach more than 40 million people at their peak. Coughlin pinned the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression on the Jewish people from his pulpit in Royal Oak, Michigan, just outside Detroit. Into this situation, and a city ravaged by the Depression and looking for scapegoats, stepped Greenberg. One can only imagine the degree of difficulty...Greenberg, for his career, was the symbol of the Jewish people and all that it entailed.
Reading about what Robinson had to go through in terms of the abuse in his brief time in the majors and handling the abuse in the manner that he did, stood out to Greenberg. According to the book HANK GREENBERG The Story of My Life Edited and with an Introduction by Ira Berkow:
Early in the season, Jimmy Powers in the New York Daily News quoted Greenberg on Robinson: “The more they ride him the more they will spur him on. It threw me a lot when I first came up. I know how he feels. . . . They will keep needling Jackie, and he will react by forcing himself to play over his head. I’ll be awfully surprised if I hear that Robinson fails to hit and hold his job.”
The Brooklyn Dodgers would travel to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh for a three game series from May 15-May 17. It would be during this series that Greenberg and Robinson would meet and give Greenberg a front row seat of the abuse hurled at Robinson. Once again, according to the above quoted Greenberg's autobiography:
Jackie came into Pittsburgh on a Friday afternoon, and the place was jammed. We were in last place and the Dodgers were in first. Our Southern ballplayers, a bunch of bench jockeys, kept yelling at Jackie, “Hey, coal mine, hey coal mine, hey you black coal mine, we’re going to get you! You ain’t gonna play no baseball!” Jackie paid them no mind. He got on the bases and started dancing. It was beautiful to watch. I couldn’t help but admire him. Anyway, we were in last place and these guys were calling a guy on a first- place team names. “We’ll get you next time at bat, you dumb black son of a bitch. We’re going to get you!”

Jackie turned his head. He was like a prince. He kept his chin up and kept playing as hard as he could. He was something to admire that afternoon.

I got to thinking, here were our guys, a bunch of ignorant, stupid Southerners who couldn’t speak properly, who hadn’t graduated from school, and all they could do was make jokes about Jackie. They couldn’t recognize that they had a special person in front of them, a gem. They just kept ragging him and calling him names.

In a way, it was sad that he was so educated because, had he been just an ordinary bumpkin, it might have been easier for him. But the fact that he was a college man, from UCLA, and a football star, a baseball star, and a basketball star made it difficult for him to accept a role of a subhuman being in a world where he felt he was an equal. In every park that he played that spring he was on exhibition. He was the one the fans came out to see, this first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues.
It's not totally clear to me in which game during the series that the collision between Greenberg and Robinson occurred at first base. The article HANK GREENBERG A HERO TO DODGERS’ NEGRO STAR from the New York Times dated May 18, 1947 stated the following concerning the discussion between Greenberg and Robinson:
Jackie Robinson, first Negro player in the Major Leagues, has picked a diamond hero— rival first baseman Hank Greenberg of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Here’s why:

Robinson and Greenberg collided in a play at first base during the current Dodger- Pirate series. The next time Jackie came down to the sack, Hank said,

"I forgot to ask you if you were hurt in that play."
Assured that Robinson was unharmed, Greenberg said:

"Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up."
This encouragement from an established star heartened Robinson, who has been the subject of reported anti- racial treatment elsewhere and admits he has undergone ‘jockeying— some of it pretty severe."

“Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg,"Robinson declared.
Greenberg's autobiography delves further into the conversation between the two future Hall of Famers:
I said to Robinson at first base, “Don’t pay any attention to these Southern jockeys. They aren’t worth anything as far as you’re concerned.”

He thanked me and I said, “Would you like to go to dinner?”

He said, “I’d love to go to dinner, but I shouldn’t because it’ll put you on the spot.”

That was our conversation, and we always were friends after that, even though he was in the National League and I went back to the American League as a club executive after that season.
Greenberg further elaborates on his observations concerning the behavior towards Robinson compared to his own experiences:
Jackie had it tough, tougher than any ballplayer who ever lived. I happened to be a Jew, one of the few in baseball, but I was white, and I didn’t have horns like some had thought I did. Jo- Jo White had said to me, “I thought all you Jews had horns on your head.” But I identified with Jackie Robinson. I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way. Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheenie and a Jew all the time.
Upon Robinson's retirement from the game after the 1957 season, there were many former and current players who wished Robinson well wishes. One of these was Hank Greenberg. According to the book Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad:
Hank Greenberg, writing to praise "your long and illustrious career" and the "exemplary manner in which you have conducted yourself--both on and off the field," called Robinson "a credit to baseball and inspiration" to youngsters "who will attempt to emulate your example."
Both baseball legends would once again be tied historically in 1970, when both Greenberg and a Robinson testified in Federal Court against Baseball's Reserve Clause in the Flood v. Kuhn (407 U.S. 258) aka Curt Flood case.

Jackie Robinson would pass away on October 24, 1972 with Greenberg attending Robinson's funeral. Greenberg himself would pass away on September 4, 1986.

It really is surreal to think that players such as Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson had to deal with such blatant racism no more than 70-years ago. That such behavior was deemed to be a part of everyday life. That it was acceptable to treat a person in such a manner because of the color of their skin or due to the religion that they choose to practice.

It really is heartening that a player such as Hank Greenberg, who himself was an object of the hatred and ignorance of others chose to support Jackie Robinson. It would have been easier for Greenberg to just forget his own experiences rather than take the positive step forward to lend support and encouragement to Robinson. Thankfully, Greenberg exhibited the qualities of the decent man that he was in reference to Jackie Robinson and it needs to be a story that is told more than just once a year.

Until Then Keep Playing Ball,
Baseball Sisco