“The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule.” – Albert Einstien
Sometimes history aligns in a way that cannot be denied; whether the participants in said history are aware of their place or not. Regardless of their desire to make a big deal out of a situation or to just ignore it completely, fate and destiny have a way of lining things up for a given situation. Maybe it’s a way of the universe balancing out? Or, better yet, the balancing of good and evil? Most of the time we are unaware of this balancing act, but sometimes it smacks us right in the face. And, this was the case with Hank Greenberg and Adolf Hitler.
In 1933, the world was changing — even if we didn’t know it yet. See in 1933 there was a force that soon would do their damnedest to take over Europe. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party took control of Germany in January and as the Great Depression swept through the United States, America’s attention was not in Europe. Of course, what could we have done about it anyway? Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead set on remaining neutral during the turbulent times arising in Europe because so much needed to be taken care of here at home.
1933 in Detroit was also a moment in time when the counterpunch to Hitler’s rise in Europe stepped to the forefront of the baseball world. That counterpunch stood 6’3″ tall and weighed in at 210 lbs; his name was Hank Greenberg. During his time in Detroit, Greenberg’s rise to stardom gave hope to thousands upon thousands of American Jews, whether he intended to or not. And it is in this service to a much-maligned people that made Hank’s calling of the highest destiny.
Anti-Semitism in Europe and the world over
When Adolf Hitler took control of the German people in 1933, he was originally given the position of Chancellor for four years. Upon taking office, Hitler addressed the Nation in the Proclamation to the German Nation. In this proclamation, he blamed the downturn in the German nation on two things: communism and Bolshevism. Not once in the speech did he mention the Jewish nation. However, history will teach us that they were his number one target and it stemmed from his hatred of Bolshevism — something that many people believed was a plot of the Jewish people.
Detroit’s own Henry Ford connected the Jew to Bolshevism in Russia in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent, when he stated,
“The Jew is again being singled out for critical attention throughout the world. His emergence in the financial, political and social spheres has been so complete and spectacular since the war [World War I], that his place, power and purpose in the world are being given a new scrutiny…In Russia he is charged with being the source of Bolshevism, an accusation which is serious or not according to the circle it is made…In Germany he is charged with being the cause of the Empire’s collapse…” (Ford, 1920, 1)
It was in his speech to the German nation that Hitler did blame the rise of Bolshevism for the downfall of the country, thus hinting at the pervading idea that the Jewish people were the problem. He said, “Fourteen years of Marxism have ruined Germany; one year of Bolshevism would destroy her,” (Hitler, 1933). The rise of antisemitism was rampant, happening in Europe and even in Detroiter’s backyard.
Ultimately, we know the story. In 1934, Hitler took complete control of the German government by eliminating any dissenter even within the Nazi party. And, by the end of the World War II he would exterminate more than six million Jews because of his position on what he deemed best for the German people. But, yet, all was not lost for the Jewish nation. A symbol of hope rose to the forefront of their daily lives — especially here in America.
Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish Superstar
As Adolf Hitler was taking over Germany, a Jewish man was preparing to play first base for the Detroit Tigers. It would not take long, either, for Greenberg to become a hero for a downtrodden race of people, one they truly never had before.
Ira Berkow, who helped Greenberg write his biography recounted, “When Greenberg broke into Major League Baseball–his first full year in the big leagues was 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became chancellor in Germany–Jews were continuing their struggle as a people to make it in America,” (Greenberg, 1989). There had been plenty of Jewish athletes during this time, however, none of them sparked a sense of heroism that Greenberg did.
There were reasons for this, of course. Because of the racism they faced, many Jewish ball players had shortened their names or changed them completely. Even, the heavyweight Champ Max Baer lost his immortality when he was defeated at the hands of Jimmy Braddock. But, Hank, he was the hero that many Jewish boys and girls looked up to, even with the horrendous evil that lurked over in Europe.
In his book, Hank Greenberg: The Story of my LIfe, edited by Ira Berkow, Berkow recounts a moment on a train to Philadelphia that summarizes nicely the belief the Jewish people in America held for Hank Greenberg. He remembers,
“The Tigers traveled to Philadelphia and one morning Greenberg was opening his mail at the breakfast table, which he was sharing with Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times. ‘Greenberg passed across a letter, scrawled in a childish hand with pencil on cheap, blue-ruled tablet paper,’ Shaver wrote. ‘It was from a 13-year-old Jewish girl. There were a few misspelled words.
‘Hank had no cad. He wouldn’t give out the letter for publication even from a 13-year-old, but there are one or two things in the letter we are privileged to reveal.
‘To that little 13-year-old girl, Hank is a Jew in shinning armor. She had been bitterly disappointed in Max Baer…and was banking all on Hank. She begged him not to fail her or his people. There are thousands of little boys and girls like her.
‘ “You have an immense responsibility,” we remarked, passing it back.
‘Hank’s face was grave as he tucked the soiled little letter away in his pocket.
‘ “Yes, I have,” he said soberly’. ” (Greenberg, 1989, 74-75).
Home runs against Hitler
Five years after Greenberg’s rookie season, and Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, he was on the cusp of history. He was on the team when the Tigers won their first World Series in 1935, missed most of the 1936 season with a broken bone, and nearly eclipsed Lou Gehrig’s single-season RBI total of 185 in 1937. But, in 1938, he took on baseball royalty: Babe Ruth.
As Hank started to smash home runs in the early part of the season, the journalists began to create a story. They started to match his season totals to date with that of the Babe’s when he hit 60 in 1927. With more than a week to play, Greenberg sat at 58.
He recounts in his book Story of My Life, “[i]t was 1938 now and I was making good as a ballplayer. Nobody expected war, least of all the ball players. I didn’t pay much attention to Hitler at first or any of the political goings-on at the time…Of course, as time went by, I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler,” (Greenberg, 1989, 110-111).
There is no way to excuse or replace the horrendous devastation created by one man, Adolf Hitler. But, by taking on the responsibility to serve as a distraction from the horrors of Europe and give hope to a group of people who felt hopeless, Hank Greenberg met “the high destiny of the individual” by serving as more than a ballplayer, but rather a symbol of hope. He did not choose it, but he accepted it, and that is all that counts.
Ford, H. (1920). The International Jew: The worlds foremost problem, being a reprint of a series of articles appearing in The Dearborn Independent.
Greenberg, H. (2009). Hank Greenberg, the story of my life (I. Berkow, Ed.). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Hitler, A. (n.d.). Berlin: Proclamation To The German Nation — February 1, 1933. Retrieved May 21, 2018, from http://www.hitler.org/speeches/02-01-33.html