The tale is scripture in American Jewish sports lore. Sept. 10, 1934. Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg agonizes whether to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. His religiously observant parents don’t want him to. His teammates, fighting to win the pennant, do. Finally, Greenberg decides to play — and hits two home runs, leading the Tigers to a 2-1 victory. Nine days later, Greenberg sits on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and wins the praise of rabbis, newspaper columnists and many ordinary people for honoring his religion.
Unlike many great tales, this one is 100 percent true. But the story does not end there. The Jewish High Holidays of 1934 set the template for the rest of Greenberg’s career. The future Hall of Famer always played on Rosh Hashanah after that, and marked the day with some of his biggest days at the plate. He would then always rest on Yom Kippur — although once, just once, he was strongly tempted to play.
The raw numbers from Greenberg’s 10 Rosh Hashanah games are impressive: 14 hits in 40 at-bats, adding up to a .350 batting average. He hit six homers, scored 10 runs, and accumulated 14 runs batted in. His teams won seven of the ten games.
John Rosengren wrote a biography of the Tigers slugger that was released earlier this year: Hank Greenberg, The Hero of Heroes. He says that as a young man, the New York-born-and-raised Greenberg was genuinely religious, and the decision to play on Rosh Hashanah clearly did not come easily.
“He left home at 19 to play minor-league ball, and would go to synagogue in Texas,” Rosengren says. “For spring training one year, he stayed in a Jewish boarding house so he could go to the [Passover] Seder. … So he wasn’t a guy going to services every week, but he was going. It was important to him.”
“In 1933, he sat out both holidays [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.] But in ’34, there was pressure for him to play. Detroit had a chance to win the pennant. He felt pressure from the owner, the manager and the town.” In the biography, Rosengren notes that Greenberg went to services before the mid-afternoon game, and arrived at the Tigers’ stadium in his synagogue clothes, still uncertain whether he would play.
Once he played, the precedent was set, and Greenberg thereafter seemed to save some of his most productive days for the first day of the Jewish calendar. On Rosh Hashanah 1937, he was 5-for-10 with a home run and four RBIs as the Tigers swept a doubleheader from the St. Louis Browns. In 1945 — his first year back from World War II — he had three hits and five RBIs as the Tigers crushed the Yankees. And in 1946, he repeated his feat of 1934, hitting two home runs and powering the Tigers to another victory, again over the Browns.
He might have racked up even more Rosh Hashanah triumphs had circumstances not stood in his way. In 1936, he spent most of the season on the disabled list. From 1941 through 1944, he was in the armed forces. And in 1938, when Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth’s then-record of 60 home runs in a season, Rosh Hashanah happened to be an off-day in the Tigers’ schedule.
Greenberg never played a single inning on Yom Kippur, the single holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But Rosengren says he would have played game 6 of the 1935 World Series had he not broken bones in his wrist four games earlier. “He tried to play but had that injury,” the author says. “I think he would have played; he really wanted to.”
In the book, he notes that Greenberg tried to warm up before the game, but couldn’t take more than a few practice swings because of the pain. He watched from the dugout as the Tigers won the game and clinched the Series.
After the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Rosengren says, Greenberg lost faith in religion. His children have said he taught them virtually nothing about Judaism.
“He was still proud of being a Jew,” says Rosengren. “He maintained that ethnic identity, but he stopped going to services.”
Nevertheless, Greenberg remained the idol of Jewish baseball fans, especially those who grew up during his playing years. He unquestionably performed at his highest level on Rosh Hashanah, giving his co-religionists something extra to celebrate.
That raises the question: was Greenberg trying to make the day special for his Jewish fans? Rosengren doesn’t think so. “I think it was coincidence,” he says. “Unless it was divine intervention.”
The writer is an editor at Voice of America in Washington.