Seventy five years ago this spring, the Detroit Tigers embarked on a pennant chase during the middle of the Depression that lifted the spirits of downcast Detroiters looking for a job and something positive to distract them from their misery.
Newly acquired player manager Mickey Cochrane would lead the Bengals from behind the plate with a stellar pitching staff that included Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, Tommy Bridges, Elden Auker, and Alvin Crowder and an infield dubbed “The Battalion of Death” with first baseman Hank Greenberg, second baseman Charlie Gehringer, shortstop Billy Rogell, and third baseman Marv Owen. That year, the infield quartet would set a major league record by combining to drive in 462 runs.
In addition, Greenberg, Gehringer, and outfielder Goose Goslin formed the “G-Men” a future Hall of Fame trio that saw each man bat over .300 and knock in over 100 runs.
But it was Greenberg, wearing number 5, who brought the Navin Field crowd to its feet when he stepped up to plate in hopes of seeing another colossal blast deep into the leftfield bleachers. Later that year, Greenberg, the first Jewish superstar made national headlines when he refused to play on Yom Kippur during the September pennant race.
Although Greenberg quickly became a fan favorite and someone who was very approachable and friendly, former long time visitor’s clubhouse attendant Charles “Rip” Collins told me a great story about Greenberg in a Detroit Free Press article I did about Rip’s remembrance of Greenberg.
Here’s the story:
Standing outside of the player’s parking lot at Navin Field in the spring of 1934, 14 year old Charlie Collins held out an official American League ball that he wanted autographed by his hero, the Tiger’s slugging first baseman Hank Greenberg. His heart pounding, the fair haired Collins politely asked Greenberg to autograph the ball as the slugger walked out of the park with teammate Elden Auker.
“Hank took that sucker and threw it straight down Plum Street,” Collins recalls with a chuckle. “God, it just broke my heart. I thought Greenberg was supposed to be a nice guy. I chased the ball down, and it was all scuffed up. When I walked back, he said, ‘Hey Whitey, I’m really sorry, things haven’t been go’ in so well. Come back here tomorrow and I’ll get you another ball and autograph it’.”
Although for one horrific moment, his hero had clay feet, the incident soon lead to a unique opportunity and a budding friendship.
When Collins returned the next day, Greenberg gave him an autographed ball and an offer he couldn’t refuse. ‘How would you like to shag balls for me in batting practice?” he asked the wide eyed youngster.
“As you can imagine, it was quite a thrill,” Collins says. “Hank paid me and some other neighborhood kids a $1.00 to shag balls. “Every home stand, Hank would be out there by himself for a couple of hours taking his own batting practice. He would hit those balls a mile high. I also found out the hard way how a line drive can really curve at the last minute. Sometimes I would also get him a sandwich or take his suits to Sam the Tailor on Trumbull Avenue.”
Collins grew up with his grandmother Genevieve Baker at 2834 National (now Cochrane) with a view from his front lawn of the flags flying high atop the roof of Navin Field’s leftfield pavilion.
“My grandmother was a huge Tiger fan who was always glued to the radio listening to Ty Tyson’s play by play. Sometimes Hank would drop me off at the house in his Silver Hudson Terraplane and talk with her. Believe me, it was her moment in the sun,” Collins says. “For years he would send us a Christmas card.”
Greenberg’s kindness and interest in the neighborhood kid never wavered.
“Hammerin Hank” soon found other employment at the ballpark for Collins. “He took me in to see the clubhouse manager, and said, ‘Take care of Whitey for me, okay?’” Collins says.
In the summer of ’34, and part of the 1935 season, as Mickey Cochrane’s Bengals were capturing two American League titles, Collins served as a batboy and clubhouse assistant for Tiger opponents.
In the middle of the ’35 season, Collins lost his position when the Tigers hired another kid to take his place. “I told Hank what happened and he still went to bat for me. But he later said, “The chief (Cochrane) has a friend that wants his kid in there. If it was anybody but Mickey I could straighten this out, Whitey.” As a consolation, Greenberg would often give Collins a ticket in section 17 behind home plate, a program, soda, and a box of popcorn.
Proudly displayed in his living room is a blackened ball covered in licorice, tobacco juice, and dirt that had served as the infield ball for the Tigers’ “Battalion of Death” the record hitting 1934 infield of Greenberg, Gehringer, Rogell, and Owen. And tucked away in a shoebox hidden in a rear bedroom, is one of Greenberg’s first baseman’s gloves given to him by the slugger during the ’34 season.
When Greenberg’s and Gehringer’s numbers were retired in a special ceremony at Tiger Stadium in 1982, Collins brought the treasured glove into work and asked his hero to sign it.
“I said, ‘Hank, remember me, you called me “Whitey” as a kid and you gave me this mitt.’ He couldn’t believe it. We had a nice chat after he signed the glove. Hank was just a classy guy, and a special part of my life,” Collins says.
Hank Greenberg had more than made up for hurling a kid’s baseball down Plum Street 75 years ago.