This is the first installment of our new photo series depicting baseball's stars of yesteryear on the site of present-day Navin Field, site of Detroit's historic Tiger Stadium (1912-2009).
|Photoshop by Nick Yim. Current photo and concept by Tom Derry.|
By Tom Derry
The Navin Field Grounds Crew can't think of a more deserving person to honor on this Veterans Day than the great Hank Greenberg.
The first American League player to be drafted during World War II, Greenberg ending up serving 47 months in the United States Army Air Forces, the longest of any major league player.
"I made up my mind to go when I was called," Greenberg said.
"My country comes first."
Greenberg played in only 19 games in 1941, and he didn't suit up for the Tigers again until July 1, 1945. A performer who always had a flair for the dramatic, Greenberg hit a home run in his first game back from the war.
Hammerin' Hank then hit a grand slam home run in the ninth inning of the final game of the season, sending the Tigers to the World Series.
It almost didn't happen. The game was played at Sportsman's Park in St. Louis, where they had no lights.
Umpire George Pipgras told Greenberg, "Sorry, Hank, but I'm going to have to call the game. I can't see the ball."
"Don't worry, George," Greenberg replied. "I can see it just fine."
On the next pitch, Greenberg clouted his pennant-winning home run.
Greenberg had many memorable moments before the war, too. His first amazing season was in 1934, when he slugged 63 doubles, knocked in 139 runs, and batted .339.
The young star received national attention that year when he announced that he would not play on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Many Tiger fans were unhappy with this decision, since the Detroit club was battling for their first pennant since 1909.
Detroit Free Press writer and poet Edgar A. Guest then penned his famous poem "Speaking of Greenberg."
It ended with the lines:
We shall miss him in the infield
And shall miss him at the bat
But he's true to his religion
And I honor him for that
Greenberg's RBI total would increase to 170 in 1935. In 1937, he knocked in 183 runs, just one shy of Lou Gehrig's AL record. Greenberg was more interested in driving in runs than hitting home runs.
"Just get on base," he'd tell his fellow Tigers, "and I'll do the rest."
In 1938, Greenberg fell just two home runs shy of Babe Ruth's record of 60.
In 1940, the All-Star first baseman was asked by Tigers management to move to the outfield. The team wanted to get young slugger Rudy York's bat in the lineup. Greenberg worked hard to master the art of playing the outfield. The move paid off. Greenberg was the first player in major league history to win the MVP award at two different positions, and the Tigers won the pennant.
Greenberg spent his last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. There he spent hours tutoring a young Ralph Kiner, who hit 51 home runs that year.
Greenberg, who was subjected to anti-Semitic slurs for years, was one of the first players to openly welcome Jackie Robinson into the major leagues.
"Mr. Greenberg is class," Robinson said. "It stands out all over him."
One of the best baseball movies ever made, Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998), tells us that "when America needed heroes, a Jewish slugger stepped to the plate."
Greenberg died in 1986 at age 75, but we're honored to be able to preserve the same field where he made baseball history.
So come on down to the old ball field at Michigan and Trumbull and stand in the same batter's box where Hammerin' Hank terrorized opposing pitchers during the 1930s and 1940s. Go ahead and trot around the bases like he did after one of his majestic shots over the left field fence.
The Navin Field Grounds Crew honors Hammerin' Hank for his service to our nation, and to our national pastime.
NFGC founder Tom Derry and the rest of the Navin Field Grounds Crew are the subjects of Jason Roche's award-winning Tiger Stadium documentary "Stealing Home."