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The amazing comeback of Hank Greenberg

This article is an adaptation from The Hero of Heroes (New American Library, 2013) with parts of the book reprinted with permission. Copyright John Rosengren, 2013.

On April 28, 1945, Italian partisans hanged Benito Mussolini. Two days later, Adolf Hitler, hidden in his bunker, shoved a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. On May 7, German troops surrendered to the Allies. With the war in Europe over, the Armed Services no longer needed all of its officers. The Army Air Forces placed Capt. Hank Greenberg on the inactive list, and on June 14, 1945, he walked out of Fort Dix willing -- if not ready -- to return to the Tigers, who held a slim half-game lead over the Yankees. "We haven't had such good news since VE Day," Jack Zeller, the Tigers' general manager, said.

Hank knew it wouldn't be easy. He had been away a long time. He had served 47 months, longer than any other regular major leaguer not named Hugh Mulcahy. He had not played a major league game since May 6, 1941, more than four years ago. The world had changed since then, and so had he. Much as he wanted to play again, he was not certain he could.

No one had come back after an absence as long as Hank's. He had been away from baseball four years, one month, two weeks, one day and counting. The skeptics doubted that Hank would be able to adjust to big league pitching, the years away having dimmed his batting eye and ruined his timing. Age also worked against him. At 34, he had passed his prime, and the conventional wisdom of the day was that athletic skills began to erode at 30, the time when he had left the game.

Hank showed up at Briggs Stadium early on June 21, donned his old No. 5 (which rookie pitcher Bill Pierce had been wearing but gladly returned) and stepped to the plate for a special batting practice session before that afternoon's game. Hank took a few cuts, sending a couple of long drives to left, then trotted around the bases, caught some flies in the outfield and fielded some balls at first base. He had no plans to play the game, but as three o'clock approached, the cries of "We want Greenberg" grew so loud that Hank climbed on top of the dugout to greet the fans. A swell of youths pressed toward him. They thrust out their hands to shake his or just to be able to touch him, old Hankus Pankus, returned from the war to redeem their team, to bring another pennant to Detroit, something they hadn't seen since his last full season, five years earlier.

When the Tigers left the next day on a road trip, Hank stayed behind. Greenberg spent long hours that weekend swinging, fielding and throwing. The sweat soaked his shirt. Blisters swelled on his hands. He wrapped them in athletic tape and kept swinging. The skin peeled off his palms.

He wished he had the luxury of spring training to get himself baseball-ready. Those eight weeks under the Florida sun improved his precision timing by 50 percent, he believed. They also fine-tuned his ears to the sound of the bat meeting the ball, an aid in the field. Having missed that chance, he had to cram his preparation into the middle of the season. "I hope most of the boys will start their comebacks in spring training," he said. "It's tough this way."

After 10 days, Hank did not feel like his former self. He had strained his arm, and his legs had no spring. He was not certain he had his timing back, but there was only one way to find out. He planned to play in the Tigers' doubleheader on July 1.

*****

Hank's return was more than an aging ballplayer's personal quest to regain his former job. Soon as Greenberg returned to Detroit, a front page Detroit Jewish Chronicle headline read, "Greenberg Lifts Pennant Hopes." That's what Greenberg gave the Jews -- hope -- a commodity in short supply that past decade. If he could succeed again, prove to be the star he had been, he could once again raise their spirits and rekindle that beacon of hope that Hitler had nearly extinguished.

To all Americans, he represented another sort of hope. They had coped with more than lousy baseball the past few years; they had endured gas rationing, abstained from eating meat, worked extra hours and buried loved ones who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, they turned to the national pastime for healing. If the players could return, they could restore the game to its previous dignity and glory, and, in so doing, restore a sense of normalcy to the nation, something Americans desperately craved. Hank was the test case.

Those servicemen who once earned their living playing ball looked to Hank to see if they, too, might be able to play again and return to gainful employment. In the days leading to his return, the Associated Press' Whitney Martin had written: "He will be watched as a symbol of hope to all the other ballplayers in the service who fear their absence from the game might impair their effectiveness and money-earning capacity."

The feeling was that if Hank, with his skills, fitness and work ethic, couldn't do it, then nobody could. "We'll all have the answer pretty soon," said Al Simmons, Hank's onetime teammate. "Hank Greenberg is coming back. If he can't make it, all the rest of them better cash in their GI pay and open a poolroom somewhere."

The other returning players would not have it as tough as Hank, though. He was older and had been gone longer than most. Only about 25 of the approximately 500 big leaguers who served spent more than three years away from the game. What's more, while Joe DiMaggio powered the Santa Ana Army Air Base nine, Johnny Mize played the Pacific Islands circuit and Enos Slaughter starred for the 509th Squadron San Antonio base team, Hank had hardly swung a bat since hitting his two homers on May 6, 1941. He had played only a few times: at a Michigan prison, during a spring training exhibition in Orlando, in a War Bond game at the Polo Grounds, plus a handful of softball games in China. Many other ballplayers kept their skills tuned while in the service; not Hank.

With so much riding on his return, all eyes focused on Hank Greenberg July 1, 1945.

*****

The largest crowd of the year so far turned out at Briggs Stadium to see Hank's return in the Sunday doubleheader against Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics. The 48,811 faithful -- which included more than 1,000 servicemen granted free admission -- cheered Hank heartily each time he came to bat as the Tigers' cleanup hitter. His hands still blistered, he was determined to do well for them. In his first three at-bats, he flied out twice to the rightfielder Hal Peck and popped up to the catcher. His timing had been a bit off, slow in getting his 36-ounce Louisville Slugger around on pitches, but his eye had been good, taking three balls in two of his first at-bats. He walked on four straight pitches in his fourth at-bat in the seventh inning. The home plate umpire, Bill Summers, remarked after the game that he found Hank's ability to pick out the good pitches "nothing short of amazing."

Hank had only one fielding chance, a long fly in the top of the eighth inning that he pulled down in front of the leftfield fence. But it hurt getting to the ball. In the seventh, Hank had pulled his left hamstring running from first to third on Doc Cramer's single.

Hank borrowed Cramer's 34-ounce bat in the Tigers' half of the eighth. He hoped the lighter bat would help him get around better on the ball. Once again, the fans cheered him when he stepped to the plate.

Across the state of Michigan, down into Ohio and Indiana, and up into Canada -- as far as the WXYZ radio signal carried, baseball fans listened to Harry Heilmann's call of the game. Hank faced Charlie Gassaway, a 26-year-old wartime replacement pitcher. Heilmann let his listeners know that Greenberg watched three straight balls from the lefty Gassaway then took the fourth pitch for a called strike. On Gassaway's next pitch, Hank whipped around Cramer's 34-ounce bat and got all of it. The fans rose at the familiar crack. "Trouble," Heilmann called. "Trouble!"

The ball landed in the leftfield pavilion, 370 feet away. The crowd's cheers shook the steel girders of Briggs Stadium, rippled across the field and rumbled down Michigan Avenue. The standing ovation continued while Hank rounded the bases. Harry Heilmann didn't need to say anything more. He dangled the microphone by its cord outside the press box.

"Listen," he finally said quietly, "to the voice of baseball."

Photo: AP

Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio were among hundreds of players who served during World War II.

By August, Hank's timing seemed to be coming back. On Aug. 8, two days after a U.S. B-29 dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Hank collected three hits, including two doubles, in the first game of a twin bill at Briggs Stadium against the Red Sox. That started a 15-game hitting streak.

On Tuesday evening, Aug. 14, President Harry Truman announced to the nation that Japan had surrendered. The war was over. In downtown Detroit, the bells rang in the Old Mariners' Church on East Jefferson. People spilled into the streets. In the Dexter section, a band played along the boulevard. In Cadillac Square, strangers embraced and kissed. Relief and joy mingled late into the summer night.

The Tigers entered September just 1 ½ games in front of the Washington Senators. On Sept. 8, Rosh Hashanah, he went 3-for-5, scored two runs, drove in five and hit his 11th home run. But the next day in Boston, he slid into second base and came up lame with a sprained ankle, which swelled up and hurt badly. He missed seven games. When the Tigers went to Washington for a critical five-game series, his ankle was still too swollen for him to be in the lineup. He pinch hit three times, driving in a run with a double in one appearance, but the Tigers still lost the game. With the Tigers in a tight pennant race, he seemed willing to pinch hit on Sept. 17, Yom Kippur, but rain canceled the game and spared him the decision. The Tigers left Washington clinging to that same 1 ½ game lead with seven games to play.

Hank returned to the lineup on Sept. 19 in Cleveland, but his ankle still hampered him in the outfield. It further reduced his range and made it difficult for him to set properly to throw. Runners advanced easily on him. He became a liability in the field. Maybe the Tigers didn't need him the way they once had.

That month, rumor had it that he would retire when the season ended. "The Tiger outfielder has not come back as strongly as he expected, and he is toying with the thought of retiring," The Sporting News reported on Sept. 13, 1945. "'Baseball, before I joined the Army,' he confided to a friend, 'used to be fun, and now it's work. How those legs ache. I have to force myself all the time.'"

The Senators had finished their season a week early -- with a win on Sept. 23 to put them at 87-67, only a game behind the Tigers -- so Clark Griffith could rent out the stadium to the Redskins football team. The 87-65 Tigers arrived in St. Louis for their final two games needing one victory to claim the pennant.

Rain washed out Saturday's game, making Sunday a doubleheader on the final day of the season, Sept. 30. More rain delayed Sunday's start. The ground crew did its best to mop up the water, but the infield dirt was the consistency of grits. With the thermometer at 57 degrees, fog shrouded Sportsman's Park. A mist continued to fall, but the American League didn't want its pennant decided by default -- wartime rules stipulated that the final games would not be played if they were rained out, which would make the Tigers the "Umbrella Champions" -- so, after nearly an hour delay, plate umpire Charley Berry finally called, "Play ball!"

Virgil "Fire" Trucks, discharged from the Navy only two days earlier, started for the Tigers against the Browns' Nelson Potter, a screwball pitcher who had shut out the Tigers in Detroit the last time he faced them. The score was tied 2-2 in the eighth when the Tigers threatened to take the lead. Hank had singled and made it to second with only one out. When Rudy York hit a ground ball, Hank ran to third and took a big turn, perhaps thinking he could score the go-ahead run. But Browns second baseman Don Gutteridge, who had made the force at second, fired to third and trapped Hank off the bag for the final out to kill the rally.

Greenberg the goat. When the Browns' one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray scored in the bottom of the eighth to put St. Louis ahead 3--2, Hank feared that's how he would be remembered for his comeback.

The Tigers put their first two runners on in the top of the ninth. Eddie Mayo moved them to second and third with a sacrifice bunt. Doc Cramer batted while Hank moved to the on-deck circle. He rubbed his bat with a hunk of bone, eager for a chance to redeem himself for his base-running gaffe the previous inning. The Browns decided to walk Cramer to pitch to Greenberg, thinking they might be able to eliminate the slow-footed slugger with a double play. They figured Potter's screwball, which broke in on righthanded batters like Hank, would be more effective against him than against the lefthanded Cramer. That was not a move teams made before Hank joined the Army: walking a 40-year-old with a .275 batting average to get to Greenberg with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. Hank tossed aside the bone and approached the plate. He settled his spikes the best he could in the muck of the batter's box.

Fewer than 6,000 fans had shown up at Sportsman's Park for Sunday's twin bill. By the ninth inning, the rain had chased many of them away. But Tiger fans back in Michigan were glued to the radio broadcast of the game. Two brothers, Carl and Sandy Levin, leaned into their family radio in a Detroit living room. Harry Heilmann, tucked in a basement studio under the Telenews Theater on Woodward, broadcast the game over the WXYZ airwaves with the wire from St. Louis. "Potter delivers the first pitch." He paused. "Ball one." Heilmann's voice gripped the boys and all of those within range to hear him.

Hank glared out at Potter. "Here's the windup." Hank saw Potter's hands stop at his cap -- screwball. "Potter delivers the pitch." Right down the middle. "Greenberg swings." Hank hit the ball like a rocket, a long, low drive down the leftfield foul line. "Trouble!" Hank knew if it stayed fair, the ball would easily reach the seats. If it stayed fair. He paused down the first-base line. He feared the ball would hook foul. "Trouble, TROUBLE!" The ball cleared the wall about a foot inside the pole. "IT'S A HOME RUN!"

Carl Levin and his brother Sandy screamed in delight. Their father thought the house was on fire. Instead, he found his sons running around wildly in excitement. "Greenberg hit a grand slam!"

Photo: AP

Greenberg (right) hit .304 with two home runs in the Tigers' World Series win over the Cubs.

Hank rounded the bases in awe. A year ago, he had been in India, wondering when the war would end and if he would ever play baseball again. Now, the war was over. "And, not only that, but I'd just hit a pennant-winning, grand-slam home run. I wasn't sure whether I was awake or dreaming."

His teammates waited for him at home plate. Red Borom, who had scored from third, kissed him on the cheek. His other teammates hugged him, thumped him on the back and shook his hand. The home run his first game back had given him a thrill, but this was bigger. Way bigger.

Al Benton put down the Browns in the ninth close out the 6-3 final. The Tigers were the 1945 American League champions. Greenberg had punctuated his return with a grand slam to win the pennant! "Never was a title won in more dramatic fashion," the New York Times reported.

*****

Hank's grand slam resonated beyond Detroit. Jews rejoiced that once again the Hebrew star had triumphed. "It was like a major Jewish holiday in our neighborhood to celebrate this incredible historic event that this great Jewish star had won the pennant for the Detroit Tigers," said author Maury Allen, who grew up in Brooklyn.

The blow became the coup de grâce for Hank's legend. He was everything America imagined in a hero: the immigrant son who worked hard to become the national pastime's most valuable player, the baseball star who set aside his personal interests to serve the nation in its time of war and now the star returned to fulfill his team's dream in storybook fashion, giving Americans who wanted simply to return to normal life hope that anything is possible, that in this postwar era they could dare to dream the impossible dream.

Fifty years later, Carl Levin, having grown up and become a U.S. Senator, recited the lead in the next day's newspaper: "'Call him the hero of heroes. Call him the champion of champions. Call him the hero of Bengaltown,'" Senator Levin said. "I almost weep remembering what it meant to us, that home run."

John Rosengren is an award-winning author who has written seven books and whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and on SI.com, among many other places. To buy his book "The Hero of Heroes," go to www.hankgreenberg.net.

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