The Detroit Tigers basically stole Hank Greenberg from the Yankees. The New York native turned down an offer from the Bronx Bombers to attend college. Then, Detroit swooped in and signed the collegiate player. Greenberg went on to become one of the most dominant hitters in baseball history. The Tiger great challenged Babe Ruth’s home run record and Hack Wilson’s RBI mark. Then, he followed his conscience and enlisted following Pearl Harbor. Greenberg lost nearly five prime seasons to World War II stunting his cumulative offensive totals. The Tigers were a different club without his leadership. In the end, Greenberg dominated his era, led his team to two World Series titles, and refused to compromise principles.
The New York Yankees attempted to sign Hank Greenberg, but the 18-year-old prefered first base to the outfield. The Yankees already had Lou Gehrig entrenched at first base. Greenberg was not going to displace the Iron Horse. As a result, Greenberg chose college over professional baseball. Later that year, the Detroit Tigers offered Greenberg $9,000 to leave New York University for a chance to play in the bigs. The New York native played three seasons in the minor leagues, made one Major League appearance in 1930, and went 0-for-1. Greenberg joined the Tigers for good in 1933. He played in 117 games, batted .301, and drove in 85.
Hank Greenberg built on his rookie campaign and developed into a star in 1934. The Tigers boasted established stars such as Goose Goslin, Mickey Cochrane, and Charlie Gehringer. This relieved some pressure from the 23-year-old. He led the league with 63 doubles and batted .339. On top of this, he scored 118 runs, knocked 201 hits, blasted 26 home runs, drove in 139 RBI, and posted a 1.005 OPS. The Tigers lost the World Series, but Greenberg hit .321 with a homer, 7 RBI, and .978 OPS in seven games.
Cochrane won the 1934 AL MVP award as Detroit’s player-manager. The MVP remained in Detroit in 1935 when Greenberg won the award. He led the league with 36 home runs, 168 RBI, and 389 total bases. The MVP added 120 runs, 46 doubles, 16 triples, .328 average, and 1.039 OPS. The Tigers won the World Series with Greenberg batting only .167 in two games. A wrist injury in Game Two sidelined the slugger for the final four games of the Fall Classic.
During Detroit’s pennant years, Greenberg emerged a leader on the field and a man of conscience off. In 1934, he declared his inability to play on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. This caused controversy around Detroit because the Tigers had not won a pennant since 1909. After consulting his rabbi, Greenberg agreed to play on Rosh Hashanah, but not Yom Kippur. The rabbi found an oscure reference to boys playing ball on the latter holiday. Naturally, Greenberg hit two home runs in a 2-1 victory over the Red Sox. The Greenberg-less Tigers lost on Yom Kippur.
After injuries limited Greenberg to 12 games in 1936, the observant Tiger proved his MVP award was no fluke. In 1937, he challenged the all-time RBI record. Greenberg fell just short with 184. The following season, the Tiger tied the all-time home run record for right handed batters with 58. He had a chance to catch or surpass Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs, but could not quite equal the Sultan of Swat. He did lead the league in home runs and set a record with 11 multi-home run games. Between 1937 and 1939, Greenberg batted .322 with 131 home runs, 444 RBI, and 1.091 OPS. He made three All Star teams and earned MVP votes each season. The first baseman finished third twice and 18th in 1939 in the MVP balloting.
Greenberg managed to win his second MVP in 1940. He led the league in doubles (50), home runs (41), RBI (150), slugging (.670), OPS (1.103), and total bases (384). The MVP added a .340 average, 129 runs, and 195 hits. Most impressively, the first baseman agreed to move to left field to make room for poor fielding Rudy York. As a result, Greenberg became the first player to win the MVP at two different positions. On top of this, the Tigers won their third pennant in Greenberg’s tenure. He batted .357 with a home run, six RBI, and 1.007 OPS in Detroit’s seven game series loss to the Reds.
The Tiger great appeared in his fourth and final All Star game and won his final MVP in 1940. World War II dominated his next five seasons. The army inducted Greenberg in May 1941. He earned a discharge two days before Pearl Harbor, but became the first Major League player to enlist following the attack. Additionally, Greenberg served longer than any other baseball player. He did not return to the Tigers until 1945. Amazingly, the war veteran did not miss a beat. He batted .311 in 78 games and hit a pennant winning grand slam. The Tigers went on to win their second championship in a seven game thriller against the Cubs. Greenberg batted .304 with two home runs, seven RBI, and 1.162 OPS against Chicago.
Despite playing only 78 games in 1945, Greenberg finished 14th in the MVP race. The following year, he finished eighth. Although he only batted .277, the Tiger led the league in home runs (44) and RBI (127). In the off season, Detroit tried to cut the 35-year-old’s salary, but Greenberg demurred. The Tigers traded him to Pittsburgh fearing their star would retire. The aging superstar played one more season before finally retiring. The Tigers did not win another pennant until 1968.
The Tigers won four pennants in the Greenberg era. The big man’s presence in Detroit’s lineup proved the difference between contention and the second division. The Tigers strugged while Greenberg served in World War II. When he returned, they won the World Series. For his Tiger career, Greenberg batted .319 with 331 home runs, 1,274 RBI, 1,046 runs, 1,628 hits, 379 doubles, and 1.017 OPS. War service cost the Tiger great nearly five seasons depressing his overall totals. In the end, no Tiger provided more impact on the Detroit Tigers than Hank Greenberg.