It ranks as one of the most heroic moments in Detroit sports history.
Just weeks after World War II ended following the surrender of Japan, the Detroit Tigers entered the last day of the 1945 season in first place but in need of taking at least one game of a doubleheader against the Browns in St. Louis to avoid a one game playoff with the second place Washington Senators.
Trailing 4-3 in the top of ninth in a rain drenched and gloomy Sportsman’s Park in front of just 6,613 fans, Brown’s hurler Nelson Potter walked Doc Cramer to load the bases in the hopes that Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg would hit into a game ending double play.
Greenberg, Detroit’s own sultan of swat, had become a fan favorite a decade earlier when he led the Tigers to their first world championship in 1935.
In July, Hank had returned to baseball after four years of military service. He had been the first American Leaguer to join the war effort in 1941. In his first game back on July 1st in front of 55,000 fans at Briggs Stadium, Greenberg hit a homer.
Wrote Bob Murphy of the Detroit Times:
“It had been 4 years, 1 month, and 24 days since Greenberg had known the thrill of hitting a home run in a major league ballpark and hearing the roar of the worshiping audience.”
In his 1989 autobiography, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life, “Hankus Pankus” described what happened as he faced St. Louis with the ’45 pennant on the line:
“I took the first pitch from Nelson Potter for a ball. As he wound up on the next pitch I could read the grip on the ball and I could tell he was going to throw a screwball. I swung and hit a line drive toward the corner of the left field bleachers. I stood at the plate and watched the ball for fear the umpire would call it foul. It landed a few feet inside the foul pole for a grand slam. We won the game, and the pennant, and all the players charged the field when I reached home plate and they pounded me on the back and carried on like I was a hero.”
When the Tigers arrived back at the Michigan Central Depot after a celebratory train ride, thousands of fans greeted Greenberg and the conquering heroes.
Remarkably, after four years of not seeing major league pitching, Greenberg, playing in just the second half of the ’45 season, had hit .311 with 13 dingers, and 60 RBIs in 270 at bats in 78 games.
Detroit would go on to win the ’45 Series in seven games against Chicago, the last time the Cubbies appeared in the World Series.
And Hank Greenberg, who would eventually enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, further cemented his reputation as one of the greatest Tigers of all time.