Hank Greenberg: Detroit’s Jewish Superstar

Created by: Ewan Highsmith
Time Period: 20th Century, Depression
Topic: Culture, Race and Ethnicity, Sports

During the 1930s, the United States Jewish community was going through a period of great turmoil. An influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe trying to escape the reach of Naziism led the Jewish community to split on the matter of publicizing Jewish people. One side of the community thought that seeing openly faithful Jews in high places would serve as motivation and fuel for the community as well as work to boost Jewish morale. The other side of the community thought that all the publicity from openly Jewish celebrities would cause more harm than good and that laying low in the public consciousness would bring about less hate. These debates raged on nationwide, but especially in the entertainment industry. 1930s Detroit was characterized by its winning sports teams, and perhaps no Detroit sports team was more famous than the Tigers, the baseball team. A microcosm of the nationwide debate was encapsulated in one incident during the 1935 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs.

A game program from the 1935 World Series

The Detroit Tigers were headlined by their slugging first baseman, Hank Greenberg, who was amid the prime of his Hall of Fame career, Hank Greenberg won the 1935 American League MVP, hitting a league-leading 36 home runs and knocking 168 RBIs. Despite the regular season success, Hank Greenberg had World Series demons, losing the 1934 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Cardinals attributed their success in stopping Greenberg’s production to their “bench-jockeying,” or heckling as we know it today, tactics that they deployed on Greenberg. The Cubs knew going into the 1935 World Series that Greenberg was susceptible to this verbal torment, and when the series started that became abundantly clear. Greenberg was in proximity to the Cubs dugout on account of his defensive position at first base, and throughout the duration of game one, the Cubs were jeering Greenberg relentlessly. This constant torment impacted Greenberg’s play, as he didn’t notch a single hit in game one. Even the umpire had to step in and try to get the Cub’s bench to quiet down at one point, much to the chagrin of the Cub’s manager, who thought it was fair game.

The manager of the Chicago Cubs, Charley Grimm

After the game Greenberg would reflect on the hate he received, remarking that a lot of the remarks were based on his status as a Jew. This is the crux of the issue, as Greenberg had previously not experienced much harsh criticism and antisemitism in full force, despite being a prominent Jewish figure in Detroit. This incident serves as a case study of the intersection of the two sides of the nationwide Jewish debate about stardom, and it’s carried out in a uniquely Detroit way. Detroit was such a prominent place for the Jewish community in the 1930s and is a city that doesn’t have a lot of widespread antisemitism due to that presence. Greenberg faces this hate as a prominent Jewish figure in the Detroit landscape and it’s unlike anything he’s experienced before. The Cubs didn’t intend to expose the interaction of a nationwide debate about the prominence of Jewish public figures when they “bench jockeyed” Hank Greenberg in the World Series, but they managed to unearth an interesting interaction specifically within Detroit.