Seventy years ago this week, the Detroit Tigers sold their great but aging first baseman, Hank Greenberg, to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It wasn’t the first change of address for him, nor would it be the last. The leader of the team that was the great rival to the New York Yankees in the Thirties through mid-Forties was born in 1911 to Romanian-born Orthodox Jews, in this tenement in Greenwich Village.
I was hurrying to a play in the neighborhood this past fall when I came upon this building at 16 Barrow Street, just west of Sheridan Square. It wasn’t a particularly imposing structure, but for some reason I sensed that this tenement meant something. And indeed, when I saw the plaque dedicated to Greenberg's memory, I felt that I had to do more than just take this photo. I had to stand there in tribute, not just to a player of world-class talent but one who needed to display it again and again and again in a time of pressure and even danger.
As the first Jewish baseball superstar, Greenberg had to bear all the hopes of his co-religionists, even as he battled anti-Semitism, in the United States (where he endured countless slurs throughout his career, mostly from opposing fans) and abroad (during WWII, he serve as an Air Corps lieutenant in the China-Burma-India theater).
From Barrow Street, the Greenberg family moved first to Perry Street, then to the Bronx, across the street from Crotona Park. There, on its baseball field, Hank played incessantly and developed his talent. At age 18, though scouted by the New York Yankees (he was told, incorrectly, that incumbent first baseman Lou Gehrig would not be around long), he signed with the Detroit Tigers, whom he led to four American League pennants and two World Series titles.
A particularly significant year for the slugger was 1938, when he belted 58 homers—the closest any hitter came to erasing Babe Ruth’s 60-homer single-season record until Roger Maris finally did so in 1961.
Fourteen years after his major-league debut, Greenberg left Detroit for Pittsburgh. Recognizing his eroding skill at the plate and the wear and tear on his body, and dispirited about going from a pennant contender to a cellar-dwelling squad, he retired at the end of that year, but not before mentoring young slugger Ralph Kiner.
He also offered much-needed encouragement to rookie Jackie Robinson, a kindred spirit in the battle against prejudice: “Listen, I know it’s plenty tough. You’re a good ballplayer, however, and you’ll do all right. Just stay in there and fight back. Always remember to keep your head up.”
Despite missing four years in the war, Greenberg compiled superlative offensive totals by the end of his career: 331 home runs, 1,276 RBIs, .313 batting average, and an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.017—an astounding total surpassed at the time of his retirement only by Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig. Like that quartet, Greenberg ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A one-hour documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, was released in 1998. It was about not simply an accomplished ballplayer, but a symbol of achievement and standing tall for an ethnic minority suffering prejudice in the United States and persecution abroad.