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Baseball is an American institution. It is one the oldest games of our nation and is woven into the very fabric of our history. In fact, it’s so ingrained into who we are as Americans, some believe it’ll be one of the lasting impacts on the history of humanity millennia from now. Writer Gerald Early once said, “I think there are three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball. They’re the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced.” In short, Baseball is American’s pastime.
Growing up a baseball fan means two things for boys and girls in America: one, you pick a team and you follow them religiously; second, you watched and fell in love with the movie “The Sandlot.” I was no different. My parents always tell me that from the moment I could hold onto things I was carrying a ball around. Sports have been and continue to be my life, and baseball has always been my first love. And yes, “The Sandlot” is one of my all-time favorite movies, that still holds up even a quarter of a century after its release.
I mean who didn’t love and worship Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez? And who’s first crush wasn’t Wendy Peffercorn— everyone knows they were jealous of Squints when he got that first kiss after pretending to drown. But, even for all its greatness, “The Sandlot” has one quote that spans the centuries, a quote that could be written on the epitaph of only a few men. On the night before he challenges “The Beast,” Benny “the Jet” has a revelation. Babe Ruth comes walking through his closet door and talks to him about his predicament— a predicament that has the Babe’s name written all over it. Before he walks back into the closet and into the memories of all baseball fans forever, the Babe turns to Benny and says, “Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart kid, and you can never go wrong.”
Legends. That’s what we’re talking about. What makes a legend? Spanning through history there are certain people we definitely would classify as legends. Babe Ruth for sure, Jackie Robinson, Frank Sinatra, George Washington, and the list goes on. But in 1933 another legend stepped onto the forefront of history. He wasn’t well known and isn’t truly well remembered, but maybe he should be? He withstood persecution, became the face of a nation in the midst of horrible hostility, and selflessly sacrificed the prime of his life to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. His name: Hank Greenberg.
“Remember kid, there’s heroes and there’s legends. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart kid, and you can never go wrong.”
Forty-five minutes after midnight on January 1st, 1911 a baby was born to Jewish parents in the Greenwich Village, New York. David and Sarah Greenberg were welcoming their third child into the world, and intended to name him Hayman — however, the man taking the official birth certificate did not understand what she meant when she said, “Haymam,” so he just wrote down “Henry.” Close enough right? These two Jewish immigrants, who migrated just over a decade earlier, welcomed into the world that night a boy, who would become a man, and become the face of a nation during a perilous time.
David and Sarah both grew up in Romania, about fifty miles from one another and were strangers who both immigrated through Ellis Island in 1900 to pursue a new life in a new land. They were following step with about two million other Jews from Europe who passed through “the Isle of Hope” between the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 and the Great War in 1914. According to John Rosengren, a Greenberg biographer, this was the period of the largest Jewish immigration to the United States.
The two strangers met and were married in 1906, Sarah was David’s elder by two years. The two built their life in Greenwich Village, David as a textile worker and Sarah a homemaker. However, the problems they fled, they were quickly coming to realize, were also rearing their ugly head in this new land of opportunity.
Hayman, or Hank as we’ll refer to him, recalled in his autobiography, “Kids down in the village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities…when kids weren’t fighting each other, they were fighting us, Jewish kids. Halloween was a holiday for schoolchildren. It wasn’t an official holiday, but we learned to stay home on that day because in order to get to school we had to pass from one end of the block to the other, and in those days the kids used to take long black stocking they wore, fill them with what was supposed to be chalk, and whack you with it, leaving a white stain on you. The Irish kids and the Italian kids would call an armistice on Halloween and gang up on the Jews. And instead of filling their stockings with chalk, they frequently used ashes and sometimes even a rock or a solid piece of coal. If you tried to go to school, you’d get hit on the side of the head. So over the years, we learned that Halloween was a day we should stay home from school. “Look out,” my mother would say…”don’t get the sock.”
Where did these kids learn that type of hate from? Youthful ignorance or learned behavior? Hank even says in his biography that the different nationalities were essentially grouped together on their blocks. The Italians with the Italians, the Jews with the Jews, and the Irish with the Irish. So this grand melting pot of opportunity longed for and hoped for by the immigrants who boarded ships in Europe was more a myth than a reality. What Hank experienced at such a young age, this isolationism was just scratching the surface of life to come.
“Kids down in the village thought the national pastime was beating up kids of other nationalities…when kids weren’t fighting each other, they were fighting us, Jewish kids.”
When Hank was six years old, his father made a decision that changed the course of his life forever. David Greenberg saved enough money to move his family out of the Eastside Ghetto of Greenwich Village and into a second story tenement house in the Bronx. As fate would have it, the Greenberg’s new digs were across the street from Crotona Park — the place where Hank would fall in love with America’s pastime.
David Greenberg, spent years working hard and saving money, eventually saving enough to move his family to a “sixteen bedroom, three-story house,” records Rosenberg. The senior Greenberg took a job at a textile mill, eventually buying shares in Acme Textile Shrinking Works, where later he owned the entire thing. The classic American Dream story. And, he wanted nothing less for his children.
The move out of the Greenwich Village ghetto and into a more middle classed Brooklyn was more than just a residential upgrade. You could almost call it an act of fate for young Hank.
Now removed from the concrete jungle that is Greenwich Village, Hank now lived directly across from a park — Crotona Park. It was on the green grass of Crotona Park and the makeshift sandlot baseball fields, where Hank discovered the game of baseball.
The Greenbergs were traditional orthodox Jewish parents, who wanted the best for their children, wanted them to go to school and get good grades, and grow up to be successful individuals — playing a game for money was not even on thoughts and minds of the Greenbergs.
Like most traditional Jewish families, the Greenbergs spoke Yiddish. This bi-lingual upbringing, like most, led to a dichotomous identity for Hank. He was a Jew, but he lived in America and was born in America. The push and pull of having two feet straddling two different identities led to a quiet and shy persona. It also led, quite humorously, to an experience that marked Hank’s youth.
One day, around a bunch of other boys, one of them asked, “Hank how are ya?” With a mumbled and skittish response, the young Greenberg responded, “gruggy” — in a mix of Yiddish and English. The boys heard, “Bruggy,” and the nickname stuck. Could this nickname forever be a mark of Hank’s “otherness” around the boys of his school and sandlot fields?
Not only was Hank dealing with the otherness of being a Jew, but there were other causes of this otherness. In his own words, he recounts,
“I know I spent so much time at baseball because I wanted to make myself a better ballplayer, yet I suspect it was more complicated than that. I’m no psychologist, but I think one reason I spent so much time at it was related to the fact that I was six foot three when I was only thirteen. I was awkward and had a bad case of adolescent acne and felt out of place…I began to think I was a freak…I was always slouching around, more or less hiding, never standing up straight. Sports became my escape from all of that.”
That “otherness” is something that Hank would deal with long after people stopped calling him Bruggy. But, the great equalizer in Hank’s life became baseball — and he was quickly falling in love with America’s pastime.
If Hank wasn’t at school or eating dinner around the dinner table with his family — something he was usually late for to the chagrin of his father — he was on the sandlot fields. Rosenberg notes,
“The two boys [Hank and his brother Joe] would eat a quick breakfast in the kitchen, stuff fruit, and candy in their pockets for lunch and dash off to the field to secure their spot. That was [Hank’s] routine from the time they shoveled the melting spring snow off the diamond to the days when winter reclaimed it. NO matter how long they played, the darkness always seemed to come too soon.”
Hank couldn’t get enough, but his parents didn’t understand it. Greenberg recalls his mother’s comments to him, “My mother would say to me, ‘Why are you wasting time playing baseball? It’s a bum’s game.’” A bum’s game? Harsh words for a child to hear, especially for a kid just falling in love with something. But Hank persisted.
Not only was Hank falling in love with the game, that would come to define his legacy, but something else — even deeper — was taking place. Rosenberg recounts, “he was becoming an American. Quoting Peter Levin, author of From Ellis Island to Ebbets Field, “Baseball guaranteed second-generation Jewish boys admission to an American childhood and confirmed their American identities.”
The game of baseball is the great equalizer. Nationality doesn’t matter, how much money your daddy had didn’t matter either; all that mattered was how you hit, ran, and threw. Of course, this wasn’t truly the case in the early 20th century, but on a small sandlot field, steps from his home, it was for Hank.
Tireless work at the game became Hank’s modus operandi, “any time there wasn’t a foot of snow on the ground,” he said, “I was playing baseball.” At the ball field he would recruit stragglers, usually, younger kids, to pitch to him, shag fly balls, or pepper him to improve his fielding. With no backstop at Crotona’s field there was an emphasis for Hank to hit the ball, or else he had to waste time chasing them down. He even convinced his father to allow him to place a sliding pit — made of sawdust — in order to practice his sliding. To say he was sold out, would be an understatement.
‘Why are you wasting time playing baseball? It’s a bum’s game.’
Even as Hank graduated from high school, where he wasn’t a standout player by any means, he continued his daily routine of practicing at Crotona Park. It was in these next few years that Hank Greenberg had two encounters that prodded him further into the possibility of being a professional baseball player — even if it was “just a bum’s game.”
The first came on the fields of Crotona Park. After school, Hank would head to Crotona Park to practice his hitting. On many occasions he’d encounter Matt McGrath and Pat McDonald, Olympic heroes in the 20s — they had won gold medals in 1912 — and were policemen in the area; McDonald was a shot putter and McGrath was a hammer thrower. They would situate themselves far enough away from the pimply faced kid, making younger knee biters chase them for him.
However according to Hank, they did have a run in or two,
“I’d have trouble with McDonald because while he was getting ready to fling that shot, I’d be batting those flies out. These kids were so intent on catching the fly balls that sometimes they’d run into the path where he was throwing, and, of course, he felt responsible for where it landed. Many times he’d wind up with great fury and get ready to release the shot when, boom, he’d see a kid out of the corner of his eye and then he’d have to put the brakes on. When this happened he was mad like a bull. He was so mad and furious that he’d chase us from time to time.”
Now Hank was no small kid, 6’3 by the time he was 13; McDonald just a half-inch shorter and weighed 265 pounds. But peace was always restored. McDonald was a police captain at the time and eventually served 41 years on the NY police department; most well known for directing traffic at Times Square. But most importantly, he was a two-time gold medalist in the shot put — the oldest winner of the gold medal in Olympic history.
Sometime after Hank graduated high school in 1929 he had another encounter with McDonald. I’ll let Hank tell the story,
“McDonald and I hadn’t had much to say to each other over the years except for him to bellow at me and for me to take off whenever he got close. I didn’t want to get in his clutches. So when he called me over I approached reluctantly. In his strong Irish brogue he said, ‘Young man, I just came from watching the Yankees play and, by God, you hit the ball better than Lou Gehrig.’ Well, that was the greatest compliment I ever had…I think that was the first time there was any indication that I might be on my way to becoming a professional baseball player.”
The second encounter came in the form of Paul Krichell, a New York Yankees scout. Bruggy had expectations of being a ballplayer, and as luck would have it Krichell — the same man who discovered Lou Gehrig — was out scouting a pitcher on Greenberg’s high school team, when he took notice of the lanky first bagger. Even after graduation, while Hank was playing some semi-pro ball, Krichell was at most of the games keeping tabs on Greenberg.
While being scouted by the Yankees, Hank had two encounters with two other clubs: The New York Giants and the Washington Senators. According to the Giants manager John McGraw, the Giants had scouted him and found him “wanting” according to Hank, saying “we’ve scouted him and he’ll never be a ballplayer.” While playing semi-pro ball just outside of Boston, a Washington scout came and asked Hank if he’d like to take batting practice with the Senators. Hank obliged and stood in against Walter Johnson — who had retired by this point but still pumping the fastball in there. Hank didn’t hit one fair. “I figured I was dead with two Major League clubs…Imagine my surprise, then, when Paul Krichell came up to scout me again…”
Kirchell took Hank to meet Ed Barrow, the Yankees General Manager, who asked Hank if he’d like to play for the Yankees. Of course, Hank said yes and was immediately given four tickets to the Yankees, and on the last game of the season, Kirchell met him for the game, in the first boxed seats along the first base line.
“…Lou Gehrig came out and took his place in the on-deck circle in the bottom half of the first inning, Krichell leaned over and whispered to me, ‘He’s all washed up. In a few years you’ll be the Yankee’s first baseman,’” Hank recounted the day in his biography. Truth be told, Gehrig went on to play 9 more seasons and have one of the more storied careers in all of baseball — only hitting under .300 (.295) twice in his career: his first full season and his last full season. Hank went on to recall that day, “I heard what Krichell was saying, but it made no impression on me because I was so awed by the sight of Gehrig kneeling in the on-deck circle only a few feet away. His shoulders were a yard wide and his legs look like mighty tree oaks. I’d never seen such sheer brute strength.” What it did though was spurn the young slugger, and tireless worker, to a much stronger desire to be a ballplayer.
‘Young man, I just came from watching the Yankees play and, by God, you hit the ball better than Lou Gehrig.’
After high school graduation, Hank enrolled in NYU, while still hoping to pursue his baseball career. He did this to satisfy his parents longing for successful children — you know, doctors or lawyers. But Hank wanted to play ball — that’s all he wanted to do.
The Yankees had offered Hank $10,000 to sign, but after seeing Gehrig he passed. Which was the right decision? Jean Dubuc had been scouting Hank for the Detroit Tigers, even setting him up with the team just outside of Boston earlier that year — which Hank assumed was to hide him from the other teams. Dubuc and the Tigers offered him $9,000 to sign with the Tigers.
Hank remembers the conversation with his father about the Tigers offer quite fondly — it was the first time he saw his father budge on the career of ball playing. Hank reminisces,
“‘Pop,’ I said, ‘are you against baseball as a career?’He nodded.‘The Tigers offered $9,000,’ I said. My father whistled softly, ‘$9,000?’ he said. ‘You mean they want to give you that kind of money just to go out and play baseball?’ ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘And they’ll let you finish college first?’ ‘Yes.’ My father sat down to collect himself. ‘I thought baseball was a game,’ he said finally, ‘but it’s a business — apparently a very good business. Take the money.’”
Score a victory for ‘ole Bruggy. He relayed to Dubuc that he’d be planning to go to college and the Tiger immediately amended their offer to $6,000 immediately and $3,000 when he joined the team for spring training, four years later. Krichell, not to be outdone, offered Hank $10,000 but according to Greenberg, “I had one look at Lou Gehrig and said no thank you.”
Bruggy was off to NYU for his first semester that Fall in 1929, and then eventually would make it to the Motor City — one of the most anti-Semitic towns of the time.
Next time on Bruggy:
Hank’s coming up and out in Detroit as a Jew in the shadow of Ford’s very anti-Semitic climate.
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