Hank Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish superstar, never had been particularly religious. But in September 1934, as the Detroit Tigers were in hot pursuit of their first pennant in 25 years, the lanky first sacker wrestled with the problem of following the dictates of his faith, a dilemma that became front-page news.
At issue was whether he should play on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish New Year, or spend the day in spiritual reflection. Greenberg consulted a highly respected local rabbi, who in the Talmud discovered references to children playing. A precedent had been found! And so, on September 10, 1934, the day in question, the Tigers’ leading run producer took his familiar position at first base at Navin Field.
In storybook fashion, Greenberg hit two solo home runs that Monday afternoon, including the winner off Boston’s Gordon Rhodes in the bottom of the ninth, beating the Red Sox, 2-1. The Detroit Free Press playfully ran a front-page headline in Yiddish: “Happy New Year, Hank.”
Hank’s parents, Orthodox Jews living in the Bronx, New York, tried to be understanding of their son’s decision to play. “It’s not so terrible,” Mrs. Greenberg told a reporter. “I see young men go in the temple in the morning and then maybe do worse things than Henry did.” But others were not so forgiving. The phone inside his room at the Leland Hotel rang off the hook. Greenberg later admitted he “caught hell” from many of these callers.
A few days later, Greenberg sat out Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. When he walked into his synagogue for prayer, the congregation gave the 23-year-old an ovation as heartfelt as any he ever received at The Corner. Wrote Free Press poet Edgar Guest:
We shall miss him on the field
And we shall miss him at the bat
But he’s true to his religion
And I honor him for that!