It used to be possible to argue that you could directly compare the best first basemen to ever play the game because the three top first basemen all played in the same league at the same time, the 1930s. The men in question were Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. You might disagree with that premise but other people would agree. The advent of Albert Pujols makes it almost impossible to make that argument today. Because they were contemporaries it is still instructive to look at the three and compare them (which I’m not going to do). By universal agreement, the third of the troika was Greenberg.
Hank Greenberg was born in 1911 (on New Year’s Day, no less) in Greenwich Village to a Jewish family that ran a textile mill. They made enough money to move to the Bronx when Greenberg was still young. He became a fine high school athlete excelling in soccer, baseball, and basketball (his high school team won the New York City title in 1929). After graduation he played first base for a semi-pro ball team and was scouted by the Giants (who decided he was too awkward to play) and the Yankees (who had Gehrig). He signed with Detroit in late 1929 for $9000.
Greenberg spent 1930, 1931, and 1932 in the minors at Hartford, Raleigh, Evansville, and Beaumont. He did well, but his ethnic background caused him some trouble with both fans and teammates. One famous anecdote has a teammate staring at Greenberg. When asked why, the guy is reported to have said “I”ve never seen a Jew before.” Greenberg asked if he “saw anything interesting.” The guy replied, “No, you look just like everyone else.” That was supposed to be the incident that solved Greenberg’s ethnic problems with his teammates. Unfortunately, it was a problem that was to plague him throughout his career as other teams and fans in other towns were known to heap anti-semitic abuse on him.
By 1933 he was with Detroit. They tried him at third (they already had a first baseman who cost them $75,000 and weren’t about to watch that much money ride the pine). He was awful. Finally they settled on a platoon situation in which Greenberg played against lefty pitching. He hit .301 with 12 home runs, 87 RBIs, and 59 runs scored in 117 games. That settled the issue and Greenberg settled in as the regular first baseman for the rest of the 1930s.
It was a good time for Detroit. They were in contention most years. The “G-Men” (a play on the then current fashion of referring to FBI men as “G-Men”-for “government men”) of Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Goose Goslin, and Gee Walker won a pennant in 1934, losing the World Series to the Cardinals “Gas House Gang”, then won the World Series in 1935 over Chicago. Greenberg led the American League in doubles in 1934 and in home runs, total bases, and RBIs in 1935. He led the league again in RBIs in 1937. In 1938 he made a serious run at Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record. He managed 58, which along with his walk and run totals, led the AL. For the decade of the 1930s his lowest average was his rookie .301. He peaked at .339 the next season (OK, he hit .348 in 1936, but only played in 12 games).
His career took a couple of sharp turns in the 1940s. First, the Tigers brought up Rudy York. York could hit a ton, but was terrible in the field. They only place they could play him was first. So Greenberg moved to left field. He wasn’t very good (his fielding percentage was .963 in 1940), but the papers of the time indicate he improved as the season went along. He was rewarded with another trip to the World Series. Despite getting a .357 average with a home run and six RBIs, Detroit lost the Series to Cincinnati in seven games. BTW the 2-1 Cincy win is one of the best game seven’s ever played.
For Greenberg the second change came in 1941. Nineteen games into the season, the government came calling. He was drafted into the Army (he became a tanker) and spent most of the next five years in the service. Interestingly enough, his original Army physical rejected him because of flat feet, leading one reporter to ask “Do you shoot a gun with your feet?” He was discharged in early December 1941. Of course the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor a few days later and Greenberg rejoined the military, this time joining the Army Air Corps. He spent 1942 and 1943 flying “the Hump” in Burma, then was sent back to the US in 1944, where he served with a unit in New York. In mid-1945, he was discharged.
He returned to the Tigers in July. He played 78 games, hit .311, and had 13 home runs. On the last day of the season Detroit was tied with Washington for the pennant. In the final game of the season, Greenberg’s grand slam in the top of the ninth gave the Tigers the pennant. He hit .304 in the World Series with two home runs, seven RBIs, and seven runs scored. Detroit won in seven games.
In 1946 he hit only .277, but led the AL in home runs with 44 and in RBIs with 127. After the season he was waived. No one seems to know quite why. There’s a lot of speculation, but I’ve been unable to find a definite answer to the question of why Greenberg was waived. Pittsburgh claimed him. He spent one season with the Pirates, hitting .249 with 25 home runs and tutoring a budding star named Ralph Kiner. At the end of the season Greenberg retired.
For a career of 1394 games he hit .313, had an OBP of .412, slugged .605, and had an OPS of 1.017 (OPS+ of 158). The OPS and slugging percentage are both seven in MLB history. He had 331 home runs, 1276 RBIs, 1051 runs scored, 379 doubles, and 852 walks over 6097 plate appearances.
After retirement he moved to the front office with the Cleveland Indians. Initially Cleveland did well, winning a World Series in 1948 and a pennant in 1954. But as Greenberg’s influence grew, the team got worse. He seems to have been a decent executive, but as he moved into the general manager’s spot he moved a level too high for him and the team floundered. He went to Chicago as Bill Veeck’s assistant in the late 1950s and helped the White Sox to a pennant in 1959. He retired a wealthy man and died of cancer in 1986. The Hall of Fame called in 1956.
Throughout his career, Greenberg faced adversity. First his ethnic background gave him problems. Then he had to shift positions. Finally the Second World War interrupted his career. He became a great player and arguably one of the five greatest first basemen to ever play. Not a bad legacy.