Hank Greenberg challenged the immortal Babe Ruth’s 60 home run mark in 1938. The Babe hit 60 in 1927 and dared anyone to match him. In 1938,Greenberg launched 58 long balls, but fell just short. However, the Tiger matched Jimmie Foxx’s 1932 record for home runs by a right handed batter with 58.
Detroit Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg entered his age 27 season with the 1935 MVP, a home run championship, two RBI titles, an 184 RBI season, and 115 career home runs. In 1937, he finished third in the MVP vote with a .337, 40, 184, 1.105 campaign. He had fallen just short of the Major League RBI record. By 1938, he was one of baseball’s most feared sluggers and would challenge another amazing record.
Babe Ruth blasted 60 home runs and owned the 1927 season. After launching his 60th home run, the Babe laid down a challenge, “Let’s see some son of a bitch try and top that one.” Jimmie Foxx came close with 58 in 1932. Greenberg would challenge the Babe next in 1938. Interestingly, Greenberg hit only three home runs in 11 April contests. So, the slugger managed 55 shots in just five months. By month, Greenberg hit three in April, nine in May, ten in June, 15 in July, nine in August, and 12 in September. He set the record for home runs at home with 39. The record still stands. Additionally, Greenberg finished with 11 multi-homer games and lost one due to a rain out.
Greenberg hit his 57th and 58th home runs of 1938 on September 27 against the Browns. Five games remained on the schedule including two against the hapless Browns. The Tigers won four of those five games, but Greenberg failed to homer. Over the final five games of the 1938 season, the Tiger batted .278 with no home runs, one RBI, seven runs scored, and four walks.
Some speculated that pitchers intentionally walked Greenberg to either save Babe Ruth’s record or to prevent a Jewish player from attaining the record. Indeed, Greenberg led the league with 119 walks in 681 plate appearances that season. This means he walked 17% of the time in 1938 compared to 13% for his career. Greenberg disavowed the conspiracy theories. An examination of the box scores and game logs on baseballreference.com demonstrate a less nefarious explanation. The St Louis Browns pitching staff was terrible. The spike in walks is mostly attributable to the hapless Browns as opposed to a grand antisemitic conspiracy.
In the end, Greenberg fell just short of Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs. He finished 1938 with a .315 average, 58 home runs, 147 RBI, 143 runs, 175 hits, 119 walks, and 1.122 OPS. Greenberg led the league in home runs, walks, and runs scored. His efforts led to his second All Star team and a third place finish in the MVP balloting behind Foxx and Bill Dickey. After 1938, Greenberg made two additional All Star squads, moved to left field, won the 1940 MVP, became the first Major League player to enter the army for World War II, won two more home run titles, led the Tigers to two additional pennants, and won the pennant with a dramatic grand slam in 1945. Hank Greenberg entered the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Hank Greenberg just missed matching or surpassing Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs with an amazing 1938 campaign. Greenberg finished the season with 58 homers. The mark tied Jimmie Foxx’s record for right handed batters. The record remained intact until the steroid era. Despite this, Greenberg’s total remains pure and continues to top the Detroit Tigers all time list.