Ballfield or synagogue: Hank Greenberg’s High Holiday dilemma

By Bill Simons

In 1959, Yom Kippur – Tishrei 10 on the Hebrew calendar – fell on October 12. Although raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Hank Greenberg, then 48 years old and living in Manhattan, was no longer religiously observant. Nonetheless, on this, the most solemn and holy day of the Jewish year, something stirred in him. Divorced and the custodial father of two sons, Greenberg told his boys, Glenn, 12, and Steve, 11, that they were not going to go to school that day because it was Yom Kippur. Glenn and Steve had not received a Jewish education, but Greenberg would take his sons someplace special on Yom Kippur 1959. It was not to a synagogue. Greenberg could not return to the traditions of his immigrant family. Instead, they went to the Hayden Planetarium, spending two to three hours there. 

Undoubtedly, in this unconventional observance of the sacred day, father and sons encountered some of the central concerns of religion – awe at the vastness of creation, consideration of the moral significance of the universe and the place of humanity within something much larger than itself. Steve observed of his father on Yom Kippur 1959, “He took us someplace that was obviously special. Someplace that maybe represented the vast unknown; someplace he hadn’t been to for a long, long time. It was for him a reaching back to something, but he couldn’t go all the way.” Greenberg undoubtedly thought of another Yom Kippur, 25 years before in 1934, when his decision as a young baseball player concerning observance of the High Holidays attracted national attention. 

Despite a career abbreviated by four-and-one-half years of World War II military service, Greenberg, a 6’4” first baseman-outfielder, ranks as one baseball’s greatest sluggers and stands with pitcher Sandy Koufax, a fellow Hall of Famer, atop the list of the game’s most iconic Jewish players. In the equivalent of nine-and-one-half seasons, Greenberg hit 331 home runs, accumulated 1,274 runs batted in, averaged .313, four times led the American League in both home runs and runs batted in, won two Most Valuable Player awards, and led his team to four pennants. Until 1998, no right-handed batter exceeded Greenberg’s 1938 season total of 58 home runs. His .605 career slugging percentage is exceeded by only five other players. 

In contrast to Koufax, whose 1961-66 pitching peak coincided with a period of general acceptance of Jews in America, Greenberg’s 1933-40 prime seasons took place amidst resurgent domestic antisemitism, which was fueled by victims of the Great Depression who blamed hard times on the Jews and isolationists who believed that Jews sought to provoke a war between Nazi Germany and the United States. Moreover, Greenberg played for the Tigers, who shared a Detroit home with Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, arguably America’s two most notorious antisemites. Automobile manufacturer Ford republished the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a venerable forgery purporting to document a Jewish conspiracy to control international finance and world government. Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a national radio show, railed against Jewish dominance of the American economy, manipulation of politics and support of Communism. During the 1934 baseball season, public attention to Greenberg’s Jewishness peaked both amongst co-religionists and Gentile Americans.

The Tigers entered September 1934 battling for the American League pennant for the first time since 1909, and the 23-year-old Greenberg, the team’s top slugger, was crucial to Detroit’s chances. With the automobile industry devastated by the Great Depression, baseball provided Detroit with one of its few strong bonds of social cohesion. When Greenberg indicated that he might not play in Detroit’s September 10 home game against the Boston Red Sox because it conflicted with Rosh Hashanah, the press retorted that the Tigers needed Greenberg on the playing field more than even during this crucial phase of the pennant race. Detroit sportswriters emphasized Greenberg’s obligation to his teammates and to the fans. In response to queries, Detroit Rabbi Leo Franklin provided a statement that heightened the pressure on Greenberg: “In the Jewish faith, there is no power granted to the rabbi to give dispensation to anyone for doing anything, which reads contrary to his own conscientious convictions – indeed, we insist upon the doctrine of personal responsibility. In such a case as this, Mr. Greenberg, who is a conscientious Jew, must decide for himself whether he ought to play or not.” 

While Detroit boosters asserted that Greenberg had a civic duty to play baseball on September 10, there were fellow Jews who reminded him that his failure to observe Rosh Hashanah would make it more difficult for co-religionists to absent themselves from school or work on the High Holidays. A great internal struggle raged within an anguished Greenberg between synagogue and ballfield. On erev Rosh Hashanah, he sleeplessly tossed and turned throughout the night. Come the morning of September 10, Greenberg attended Rosh Hashanah services at Detroit’s Sharrey Zedek synagogue. As afternoon approached, Greenberg, in something of a daze and half expecting divine retribution, arrived at Navin Field and took his position at first base. The Tigers defeated the Red Sox 2-1 in this crucial game. The Tiger scoring came as a result of two home runs, both by Greenberg. Following the game, Greenberg returned to Rosh Hashanah services at the Sharrey Zedek synagogue.

Greenberg made a different decision on Yom Kippur. He did not play on September 19, 1934, and attended Yom Kippur services. Without Greenberg, the Tigers lost to the New York Yankees 5-2. The folk poet Edgar Guest wrote: “Came Yom Kippur – holy fast day worldwide over to the Jew, / And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true / Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.”

From rival dugouts and hostile fans, Greenberg heard many vile antisemitic slurs. At times, Greenberg responded with clenched fists, more commonly with his bat, saying, “I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.”

Although Greenberg missed most of the 1941 season due to pre-war military service, he re-enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor. There was a story, perhaps apocryphal, told in Jewish neighborhoods: “A big fellow is weaving his way around a World War II embarkation point, saying in a loud voice, ‘Is there anybody here named Ginsberg or Goldberg: I’ll kick the living daylights out of him.’ A solider stands up and says, ‘My name’s Hank Greenberg, buddy.’ The drunk looks him up and down and replied, ‘I didn’t say Greenberg. I said Ginsberg or Goldberg.’”

During much of his adult life, Hank Greenberg felt an ambivalence about Judaism. Some of it derived from the pressure he felt as a young man thrust into the unwanted position of standard bearer for American Jewry, a status that reached its apogee in the controversy surrounding his 1934 High Holiday observance. Neither theology nor the synagogue played a significant role in Greenberg’s life in the years that followed. However, Greenberg expressed his Jewish identity in other ways – battling against antisemitism, contributing to Jewish charities and organizations, supporting Israel and boosting other Jewish ballplayers. In the years prior to his 1986 death at age 75, Greenberg made peace with having served as a hero to other Jews during a time of ascendant antisemitism. Greenberg came to understand what he meant to a generation of young Jews who came of age during the virulent anti-Jewish assaults of the 1930s and who, upon reaching maturity, joined other Americans in the war against Hitler: “When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.