June 16, 2016
Hank Greenberg had a lot to do with why the Chicago Cubs have been cursed for all these years (primarily, how he was treated in the 1935 and 1945 – by the Cubs’ players and by the fans at Wrigley. I wrote this last fall in 2015. This just can’t be random events. Neither will be the Cubs winning it all in 2016.
Hammerin’ Henry Greenjacker
Providential Story #1: I got to appreciate how good Hank Greenberg was from playing Superstar Baseball – the table-top baseball game which had players represented by cards. It was one of the games put out by Sports Illustrated. We decided to start a league, so we had a draft to pick teams and start playing. There were a lot of great memories from the first season – my friend Spig won the first Championship with a team named the Johnstown 88’s. My team, the New York Giants, started the season out in front with a 19 – 8 record, but they fell apart – I reached .500 at 22 – 22, falling deeper and deeper in the standings, finishing a distant fourth in a five team league.
But that’s when I started learning how good Hank Greenberg was. I had known before that he had played for the Detroit Tigers in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, along with his famous teammate Charlie Gehringer, but I didn’t know many details about him. What I did notice was that he ended up being my Most Valuable Player – he “had a great card,” as we would say. He was my starting first baseman and clean-up hitter. He drove in a lot of runs, hitting (if I remember correctly) 24 home runs in an 88-game league schedule. I wondered why he “hit” so well, so I looked at some of his numbers on the back of his card – hmmm, very impressive! A .313 lifetime batting average – outstanding for a slugger – who hit 331 home runs.
Wait a minute! For a guy who threatened Babe Ruth’s season home run record of 60 when he hit 58 in 1938, he didn’t hit all that many home runs lifetime. Then I found out why: he had missed some time because of injuries, but most importantly, he lost four and a half prime seasons of his career because he served his country during World War II. I began to refer to him as “Hammerin’ Henry Greenjacker” because he “jacked” a lot of home runs.
So we got ready for the second season. Like many today who enjoy drafting teams for Fantasy Baseball or Football, I enjoyed the Superstar Draft. I was also deadly serious about it. I decided to write down the team I wanted to draft, so that I could plan my draft-day strategy. I had a long, detailed list – I tried to match my draft plans to what I thought the other guys in the league would do.
It was a cold, January Saturday. It was 1976, the long-awaited Bicentennial year. I was 19 years old. As I recall, there was snow on the ground and – for once – ice on the pond! It had been cold enough long enough to know that the ice was solid enough for some ice hockey. We got our skates, got the nets and our sticks, dressed warmly, and started play. We had played a lot of street hockey, but we rarely got a chance to play ice hockey – it was an exciting event, to say the least. Only one thing we had to be careful of – the thin ice at the point where the pond drained. As long as we stayed clear of that area, we would be OK.
In those days, the Philadelphia Flyers were the hockey team we followed. They were our heroes. And the number one hero of all of them was “The Captain” – long-time team captain Bobby Clarke. We all tried to play hockey the way Clarke did: like it was the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals in every game. In other words: all-out, hustling all the time, never giving an inch to the opponent. Well, in this game, Spig and I were on opposite teams. The puck slid over passed both of us – and out toward the thin ice. So, of course, since Bobby Clarke would never give up on ANY puck – ever – neither could we. Instead of one of us getting it and bringing it back, we BOTH decided to go get it – in fact, I was just in front of him, about to get it, when –
The ice cracked under us! We both went into the water, which, fortunately wasn’t very deep. I can’t remember if we lost the puck or not; all I can remember is going into the freezing water and getting very wet on a cold winter day. Fortunately, we got into our friend Greg’s car – which was pretty much a piece of junk, so it didn’t matter if we got it wet. He turned on the engine and we were able to warm up. Pretty soon, he took us to Spig’s house so we could both get into some warm clothes. I took off the jeans, socks, and two sweatshirts I was wearing and put on a pair of Spig’s socks and sweats. After drying off and getting warm, I left my wet clothes there so that Spig’s mom could dry them before sending them home with my brother Paul, who was also there. I couldn’t wait – I had to get home to get ready for work at Playtown Toy Store.
What happened next is where this all fits in – and is the stuff of legend. I got to my job, put my blue Playtown jacket on over my fresh sweatshirt and jeans, and I went back up into the loft in the storeroom in the back of the store. This was a week or two after Christmas, and my job had been dealing with Christmas returns, which had been stored in the loft until they could be processed. You can only imagine – Playtown Toys was like Toys ‘R Us, just as big, and with an enormous pile of toys brought back after the holidays. My job, as a part-time employee (I was still on Winter Break from college, although I worked three days a week even when I was in school, since I lived at home) was to repackage these and send them back to their manufacturers, if they couldn’t be immediately resold.
So, there I was, up in the loft, way in the back of the store. It was a cold Saturday night in January – nothing could be deader than a Toy Store in January. The place was practically empty the entire night – I was all alone, working on these returns. My mood was already nasty, considering what had happened in the afternoon and what I had to do at work now. My mood was about to get a whole lot blacker.
I hear on the intercom: “Joe – Line 2… Joe – pick up line two.”
I found the nearest phone – there was one up there in the returns’ loft. I picked it up.
Snickering on the other end… could this be a crank call at work? It didn’t take long for me to figure out who it was.
“We got your draft list.” Not snickering now – laughter.
I saw red! How DARE they! Then a moment – Wait a minute! How’d they get my draft list? I always keep it safe… in the back pocket of my jeans, which –“
Not the jeans I was wearing…
I was so livid, I was sure they could hear me out in the store. Nobody came running, or said anything later about it, so I think my shrieks were muffled by the surrounding boxes and the store wall.
I had never been so angry at anything then I was at – THEM! My “brother” Paul and my “best friend” Spig were laughing out of control; I had lost control, period. I felt like my privacy had been invaded – and they thought there wasn’t anything funnier that they could conceive of. I made a fool out of myself, yelling into the phone, going berserk in a safely confined space. I screeched my last word into the phone, hung up hard, then faced the blackness of the reality – they knew my drafting strategy!
Yes, we all get a kick out of the whole incident today… Hardy har-har… it IS to laugh…
But the reason I tell that story today is – yes, it was funny – but even more importantly, to know whose name was in the Number One slot.
No, it wasn’t Babe Ruth – I had second pick, so he would be gone.
No, it wasn’t Ty Cobb, or Hank Aaron, or Willie Mays…
No, it wasn’t a great pitcher like Christy Mathewson, or Walter Johnson, or Sandy Koufax, or Lefty Grove…
It was Hank Greenberg.
I kid you not.
I had grown so attached to his “card” that I couldn’t imagine playing another season without him on my team. He was so important I was willing to grab him as the second pick of the draft. And, even if Tim Freed, who had the first pick, DIDN’T take the Babe, I would still have taken Hank Greenberg. And – yes – it really was upsetting to think that anybody else would even THINK about picking him. If Tim picked Greenberg first, just to spite me, leaving Ruth on the table, I would still have been upset.
Oh, yes – I did get Greenberg – with the second overall pick of the draft. And I was delighted to get him. He had another great season, even though my team was kind of blah, finishing at about .500.
But I got Hammerin’ Henry Greenjacker!
Providential story #2: But my Providential meetings with Hank Greenberg didn’t end there. How about this: the four of us – Spig, Paul, Dan Freed, and I – decided to go up to see the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in May of 1977. We were all thrilled to be there – it was a memorable trip, to say the least. I took a few pictures of our visit – I had my regular film camera; no digital cameras, yet. I took a total of three pictures of the plaques of the inductees: one with Spig, pointing to Ty Cobb’s plaque and the only Phillie in the Hall at the time, Robin Roberts.(“Pete” Alexander has no team logo or letter on his hat). I took a shot of Dan, standing next to Joe Cronin’s plaque. There was nobody in the third plaque picture, because it was MY hero…
No kidding. I still have the photograph. You can read it clearly: Henry Benjamin Greenberg.
Providential story #3: When my Dad was in high school, he had to go to boarding school in Arizona because his asthma was so bad – he was really bothered by the pollen at his home in New York City (Rego Park, Queens, to be precise). In the spring of 1948, he was able to attend an Major League Baseball exhibition game – at that time, the Cleveland Indians trained in Arizona. He got a foul ball, so 16-year-old Mike Scotto got the players to sign it. He got signatures from Pat Seerey, Dale Mitchell, Eddie Robinson, Dick Rozek, Bob Kuzava, Allie Clark, Lyman Lindle, Thurman Tucker, Roy L. Murray, and Les Willis. He was also able to get future Hall of Famer and team manager Lou Boudreau to sign it. In fact, he eventually got a total of 5 future inductees to sign it: former Yankee great Joe Gordon and pitcher Bob Lemon (both of whose signatures have sadly faded). The first black player to play in the American League – Larry Doby – signed to cleanly and legibly. The fifth Hall of Famer, though, wasn’t a player on the team. He was actually just signed to be the Indians’ new General Manager.
Big guy… spent 1947 with the Pirates… welcomed Jackie Robinson to the NL…
Yeah, that’s him – Hank Greenberg.
That’s right. Not counting the cheap plastic baseball with the smeared signature of Sparky Lyle, I own just one autographed baseball.
That’s it – given to me by my Dad when I graduated from 8th Grade.
Still not kidding.
Providential story #4: As everybody who know me can attest, I sort of like baseball – OK, I sort of LOVE baseball. But in my classroom at school (where I’ve been teaching for over 30 years), I only have one baseball picture. It was a gift from a student – or did both of my Teacher’s Aides get it for me? I’m not sure I remember, but it was a Christmas gift, about 5 years ago. It’s a picture of seven of the greatest hitters of All Time, standing in a line at the 1937 All Star Game. It was the heart of the American League Team that year. From left to right, it was Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx… and the seventh guy in the picture, who was taller than the rest of them, but because of the angle of the shot, he looks enormous – a giant among the ordinary citizens…
Guy from the Tigers… first baseman, I think…
Yes, right again – his name was indeed Hank Greenberg.
All coincidences? You decide.
Providential story #5: Oh – and the chapel presentation I did on September 9th of this year? It was about honoring the Lord. About a Jewish baseball player who decided not to play on Yom Kippur. He was a guy who wasn’t particularly religious, but, for publically honoring Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he was blessed in a lot of ways.
No – way back in 1934, long before Sandy Koufax did that in the 1965 World Series.
Yeah – that’s him. Hank Greenberg.
Providential story #6: While I was researching for the chapel I presented this year – I spoke about the importance of Rosh Hashanah, or better, Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets – I discovered an amazing recording that’s on YouTube. It’s the earliest radio broadcast of an entire game that exists. The earliest. There’s only one earliest, right? Do you know which game it is? It’s the New York Yankees… at the Detroit Tigers, late in the 1934 season, when the Tigers were about to win their first pennant in 25 years since 1909. It was the game from September 20 – the very game after Yom Kippur, after Hank Greenberg, the young clean-up hitter of the Tigers, had sat out. The announcer mentions that during the broadcast. There is also an incident, late in the game, when well-known bigot, Yankees’ centerfielder Ben Chapman got involved in a run-down play involving Greenberg (which the Yankees blew when Chapman dropped the ball tagging Hank). He was ejected, as the announcer said, “for arguing with the umpire.” I’m sure it had to be more than that – I’m sure Chapman had some words for the most famous Jewish player in the game, especially the day after he had honored Yahweh by not playing on Yom Kippur.
Providential story #7: Head umpire George Moriarty takes the unusual step of ejecting three Cubs from the dugout for excessive “bench jockeying” during the 1935 World Series. In the first game at Wrigley – Game Three – the Cub players were so abusive toward a player on the Tigers who was actually injured and couldn’t play – fella named Hank Greenberg – that Moriarty went against the strict command by Judge Landis, the Baseball Commissioner, not to eject anybody during a World Series game. Whatever they were saying must have been pretty nasty. Maybe this incident is the reason why the Cubs haven’t won since then?
But I must be lying about all this, right? Every one of these things can be verified by many people.
There’s something special about Hank Greenberg, isn’t there?