Hank Greenberg wanted to be able to play the 1941 season before being inducted. He was the reigning American League MVP and the highest paid ballplayer at the time. He knew he had a limited time to make his living in baseball and wanted to be able to maximize his earning potential. When that desire went public, he touched off a national debate that pitted an individual’s right to pursue the American dream in a capitalist society against one’s patriotic duty to answer the call to military service. It also unleashed a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks hurled Greenberg’s way along with accusations that he was a slacker. The controversy got pushed to a higher level when a physician declared Hank’s flat feet rendered him unfit to serve in combat. Though Hank had made no secret about his flat feet, Americans were incredulous that a man could run the bases but not march in the Army. Newspapers across the country spilled plenty of ink on the subject.
Hank’s draft board had another doctor examine Greenberg and, to no surprise, that physician classified him 1-A, fit for active duty. Hank did not resist and was inducted May 7, 1941. Life magazine, the nation’s most popular magazine of the day, devoted a three-page spread to Hank’s induction, and newsreels carried footage of him being outfitted for his uniform, transported to his base and meeting the boys there. It was a major news event.
After Hank received an honorable discharge on December 5, 1941, he was eager to resume his baseball career. Two days later, Pearl Harbor was attacked. “We’re in trouble,” Hank told his friends and re-enlisted. He knew it would be a long war and that his decision likely meant he would never play professional baseball again, but he was willing to make the sacrifice for his country when it needed him.
The move won him widespread admiration, elevated his status from a baseball star to a true American hero, and completed his assimilation from immigrant son to complete citizen.
Taylor Spink praised Greenberg in The Sporting News for his willingness to protect the ideals of American democracy that had allowed for the son of Romanian immigrants to achieve success. Greenberg had become more than a Hebrew star; he had become a national hero who embodied American ideals. Spink gave credit to Hugh Mulcahy for being the first major league ballplayer drafted while the country was still neutral and to Bob Feller for being the first to enlist after the declaration of war. “But the decision announced last week by Hank Greenberg gave the game and the nation a special thrill,” Spink wrote in his editorial. He noted that Hank could have stayed home, said he had already done his bit, but he decided to serve again. “Fans of America, and all baseball, salute him for that decision.”
The New York chapter of the Baseball Writers saluted Greenberg with a special award for his “extraordinary service to baseball” at its annual dinner. “Greenberg’s prompt reenlistment after Pearl harbor constitutes a great favor to baseball,” Tom Meany explained in his New York PM column. “All the pious mouthings of the magnates about In the first month of Robinson’s rookie season, catchers had spat on his shoes, pitchers building up public morale via baseball fail to fool the public. When the highest-paid ballplayer in America voluntarily joins the armed forces, however, it indicates to the fans that ball players are as patriotic as any other profession.”
Bruce Markusen, “New book sheds light on Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg”, Michigan Athletic Company, June 8, 2013.
Bruce Markuson, “Greenberg gave encouragement to Jackie Robinson”, Michigan Athletic Company, June 12, 2013.
Hank Greenberg : the hero who didn’t want to be one / Mark Kurlansky. New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, c2011.
Hank Greenberg, the story of my life / edited and with an introduction by Ira Berkow. New York : Times Books, c1989.
For more information, see Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes (March 2013)