A few years back I wrote a feature about Hank Greenberg’s war service for a website called The National Pastime Museum. The site no longer exists, but today is a good day to dust the story off. On Memorial Day, this is for those who have served our country so well.
The feting of Hank Greenberg at Tiger Stadium on May 6, 1941, had little to do with his winning the previous season’s American League Most Valuable Player Award, or that he’d led Detroit to the 1940 American League pennant. The man was a bona-fide superstar, all but ticketed for Cooperstown after only six full big league seasons, but this was not about that, either—not directly, anyway.
The U.S. military had only recently begun its conscription process prior to entering World War II. Based largely on his being unmarried, Greenberg was among the first prominent athletes to qualify. It was known when the season began that he likely wouldn’t make it until June as a civilian; even as the Tigers played Cleveland in their second game of the season, Michigan’s local Draft Board 23 announced a Class-1A rating for Greenberg on the basis of a medical examination earlier in the day. “I’ll ask no deferment,” the slugger told the New York Times after the game, “and will be ready when called.”
Sure enough, Greenberg’s number 621 was called shortly thereafter. Thus did he find himself on May 6, playing in his final game of the season before reporting, amid significant fanfare. Before the game, the Tigers presented him with a gold watch featuring the inscribed names of his teammates. The Briggs Stadium grounds crew gave him a pen and pencil set.
For all anybody knew, it would be the final game of Greenberg’s career. At age 30, he clearly understood the finite nature of athletic endeavors. He was also sitting on 247 career home runs, a number that a month earlier he seemed all but certain to have surpassed by then.
Early-season struggles, however, intruded. Greenberg went 0-for-3 in the season opener on April 16, and did it again in the following game. After 10 games he was batting .188. By the end of April he’d accumulated only 10 hits, only two for extra bases—neither of them a home run.
May, however, began differently. In the four-game stretch leading up to May 6, Greenberg raised his batting average 34 points, going 5-for-13 with three doubles. Home runs, however, remained elusive. It appeared that he would decamp for his indefinite war leave short of 250.
Perhaps if he had been at 249, it would have bothered him more. Even at 248 the number might have been within reach, but for all of Greenberg’s fabled power—he’d paced the American League in home runs three times, and set a record for right-handed batters with 58 during the 1938 season—he had never once connected for three in a game. Thus did he content himself on the evening of May 5—at a private party thrown by the Tigers at the Franklin Hills Country Club, which included members of the visiting Yankees—with the idea that careers do not hinge on the accumulation of round numbers.
Then, in his first at-bat of his last game, Greenberg led off the second inning by pounding a Tiny Bonham fastball into the left field stands. Now he was only two away.
An inning later, he did it again, this time with a man aboard. It was the 28th time he had gone deep twice in the same game. Now he was one away.
As Greenberg stood in the outfield the following inning, he couldn’t help but consider his circumstance. It was only the fourth inning. He imagined the drama of his first three-homer game propelling him to 250 as he went off to war. “All of a sudden,” he said later, as reported in The Second Fireside Book of Baseball, “I was intensely interested in hammering one into the stands.”
Greenberg had always been an unintentional home-run hitter, seeking only hard contact and accepting whatever followed. Now, however, he had a goal and very little time to reach it. His next at-bat, in the fifth inning, came against reliever Atley Donald. The Tigers were ahead, 5-1, and Greenberg aimed for the fences.
He fell short, lofting a fly ball to Charlie Keller in medium-deep left field.
His next time up, in the seventh, he popped up to catcher Bill Dickey. Things weren’t going as planned.
When Greenberg stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth and the Tigers ahead, 6-4, he knew that it was almost certainly his final shot at the milestone. The bases were loaded, and Donald was still on the mound, in his fifth inning of work, pitching on fumes. The first three pitches to Greenberg sailed wide of the zone.
A walk was the outcome that nobody wanted. Taking the bat out of his hands with number 250 so close at hand, even unintentionally, would have been a profound letdown. “Even Bill Dickey was rooting for me,” Greenberg said later. “He kept pleading with his pitcher to whip in a fast one, letter high.”
Finally, Donald did, providing the meatball for which everybody was hoping. It was letter high, exactly where Greenberg wanted it. If ever there was a nod to history at the expense of personal statistics, this was it. Greenberg’s rocked back in his stance and uncorked his mightiest swing.
At that point, Donald seemed entirely willing to accommodate the would-be war hero. His next pitch floated in as fat as the first. Again, Greenberg attacked. Again, he missed.
Now the count was full. Greenberg represented what was probably his team’s final out of the game. Unless he fouled it off, one more pitch was all he would get. Over the previous three seasons, only Red Ruffing had allowed more home runs than Donald among Yankees pitchers, and Ruffing was the defending league leader in the category. Greenberg knew exactly what he was going to get.
When Donald lolled another meatball toward the plate, served up to the slugger as if on a tee, Greenberg put everything he had into his swing, intent on giving himself and his fans the most sensational sendoff possible.
The ending, however, was familiar. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Greenberg had struck out. Number 250 would have to wait.
The next day at the United States Army induction center, Greenberg gave out upwards of 1,000 autographs and posed for newsreel cameras while a 13-piece WPA orchestra blared what an officer called “morale building” music. At 1:30 p.m. he boarded a train for Fort Custer, Mich., headquarters of the 5th Infantry Division. Thus began his transition from baseball’s highest-paid player to lowly private, trading his $55,000 annual salary for $5.25 per week.
Greenberg spent 13 weeks in basic training before being assigned to Camp Livingston, La., where he joined the 32nd Division. Before long he was promoted to private first class, then to corporal in charge of a five-man anti-tank gun crew, then to sergeant of the machine-gun company of the 11th Infantry. All the while, he had baseball on the brain.
“As soon as I get out of the Army I’ll play ball again,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the only thing I can do.”
In November, the War Department issued a discharge order for selectees age 28 and older. Greenberg qualified. He’d be back with the Tigers before training camp opened.
He left the Army on Dec. 5, after 180 days of service. Heading home to New York, Greenberg told the Associated Press that he had little to do little but “wait for spring.”
Two days later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
For Greenberg the decision was easy. He re-enlisted immediately. Under the new circumstances, he said, “baseball is out the window.”
Thus began a three-year journey that saw the outfielder emerge from officer candidate school as a second lieutenant, get promoted to director of physical training of the Army Air Forces Flying Training Command at Ft. Worth, Tex., and ultimately end up as administrative commanding officer for the first B-29 overseas base of the 20th Air Force, in China, in charge of the cutting-edge Superfortress bomber. When the plane crashed on the runway during a testing run, Greenberg was among those who raced toward the wreckage, and was blown backward from 100 yards away when half of the ship’s bomb load exploded. Undeterred, Greenberg’s company pressed on to rescue five crewmen who’d disembarked just before the explosion and were huddled in a nearby ditch. As Greenberg circled the plane looking for others, the other half of the bomber’s payload went off, followed by exploding ammunition. As pieces of the aircraft landed all around him, Greenberg was pinned to the ground. Once things settled, he found the six remaining members of the crew in a nearby rice patty. Somehow, nobody was seriously injured.
These were not the adventures of a pampered ballplayer but of a bona-fide military man, doing everything possible to help the cause.
On June 14, 1945, two months before Japan officially surrendered, Greenberg received an honorable discharge. A week later, he was working out with the Tigers. On July 1, he trotted out to left field in Briggs Stadium for a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.
The number 249 had been hanging from the slugger’s neck for more than four years, across continents and job descriptions and military ranks. As the war drew on and his return to baseball seemed less likely, it had threatened to become a permanent fixture on his record.
But there he was, at age 34, again trying to reach the mark—four years and a lifetime away from where he had been the last time he attempted the feat. Now, he did not swing for the fences. This time everything was different. He wanted only to feel the dirt beneath his cleats and the bat in his hand, to feel like he hadn’t felt in forever—like a ballplayer again. Greenberg’s approach was easy, his expectations minimal.
In his fourth at-bat, he planted a fastball from lefthander Charlie Gassaway 375 feet into the left-field bleachers. Greenberg had his number, solid proof, finally, that he was home.