AGONY IN DETROIT

In the throes of a pennant fight in 1934 the Tigers' great star, Hank Greenberg, wrestled with a problem of conscience. For the frenzied Detroit fans, the suspense was awful
September 25, 1955

Milwaukee is a great baseball town and the Milwaukeeans ate their hearts out trying to win a pennant. They don't know how well off they are in second place. The minute a pennant is won, the blush is off the rose. Furthermore, they would have suffered so intensely before the pennant was clinched that the town would have been a nervous wreck and the victory wouldn't have been worth it.

If you think this is exaggerated, let me tell you about Detroit in 1934. The Tigers had not had a pennant since Ty Cobb days, and it seemed they were never going to make it again. Then came the break and the pennant loomed right up there before them. This is when Detroit went mad. Everybody waited in twisted anguish for the victory that would finally clinch it, and that victory simply wouldn't come. One more defeat at that particular moment would have been the signal for a mass suicide not equaled since the lemmings last marched into the sea. I've known tension in my time, but nothing like Detroit in 1934.

I was out there doing an article on Henry Ford, and Mr. Ford kindly placed a car and chauffeur at my disposal. He wanted me to see Dearborn and Greenfield Village, and I was eager to see them. The car was waiting for me after lunch on my first visit to the River Rouge plant, and I started out with every intention of doing my duty. Everybody in Detroit but Mr. Ford was talking baseball and I mentioned it to the driver and the result was electrifying. He wheeled the car abruptly about in the middle of a crowded highway and started hell-bent in the other direction.

"Where you going?" I yelled.

"Hang on," howled the driver. "We can just make it!"

"Make what?"

"The first inning!" he shrieked above the roar of the wind.

He had whipped off his hat, had his left elbow stuck through the side window and was driving like a maniac. I pinned him down when we stopped at the first light.

"We gotta get this one today," he explained in tortured tones. "We'll murder them A's!"

He yanked a folded newspaper out of his pocket and pointed frantically at a box on the front page.

"Read that!" he yelled.

This was my introduction to Iffy the Dopester. My first feeling was that Iffy had become hopelessly entangled in his own prognostications. If the Yanks did this and the Indians did that and the Browns, by some fluke, should happen to do this...the result would be great for the Tigers. On the other hand, it would be equally fine if the Yanks failed to do this and the Indians succeeded in doing that and the White Sox came through, as any decent American League team had a right to do occasionally.

I became engrossed in Iffy and was only faintly aware that my man was weaving through traffic like a cobra, beating lights, frightening off trucks and finally arriving in a parking lot with a magnificent screeching of brakes and scraping of fenders. We ran for the ticket windows, hurtled through the turnstile, scrambled to our seats—and found the game would start in exactly 35 minutes.

This gave me time to look around.

THE MOURNERS ARRIVE

The Detroit crowd was filing to its pews like mourners in a cathedral. They spoke in muted tones, seemed to walk on padded feet and hunched their shoulders in apprehension. They watched infield practice through misty, frightened eyes and the silence was so profound that the crack of a bat sounded like atomic artillery. Down on the field the Tigers acted like doomed men. The Athletics, gay and frolicsome, seemed devilishly frivolous.

When they started, the hopeless A's began playing 400 miles over their heads. Fielders climbed distant walls and robbed Tigers of sure three-baggers. Double plays flowed from the previously porous A's infield with the brilliance and rapidity of light. Nothing the gray and haggard Tigers did turned out right. Only the superlative pitching of Schoolboy Rowe kept them in the game.

As for me, I was exercising the American prerogative of rooting for the underdog. In the tomblike silence of the ball park, my applause for the A's sounded like the clap of doom. I even made some hilarious side remarks which, I realized later, might have got me killed. What stopped me was a nice-looking young man at my left, who looked out on the diamond with the tortured gaze of a martyr. He finally turned to me and spoke in a voice of soft pleading.

"I know you're only needling us," he said, "and it's all in fun, but please don't do it.... I can't stand it."

This touched me; I say it without shame. It was clear that I was in the midst of a civic phenomenon out of which either mutiny or a new spirit of morality might arise. I turned immediately into a dedicated follower of the faith. Connie Mack was a nice old man, but his A's were going nowhere and I very much wanted to be part of the spiritual crusade the Tigers were leading.

For five consecutive days Mr. Ford tried to get in a reference to Greenfield Village, but each time I headed him off with a leading question that kept him tied up for an hour. I think the baseball bug had hit him by this time, for his failure to press me seemed significant. Every afternoon I was down at the ball park leading the congregation in putting the whammy on the Boston Red Sox, who were acting as uppity as the departed A's. It took full afternoons of muttered maledictions and prayers to pull the Tigers through.

And then there was the alarming crisis of Hank Greenberg and Rosh Hashana. The town was in an uproar over the fact that Hank might not be able to play on this holy day of his faith. Replacing Hank on first by Marv Owen and putting Heinie Schuble or Flea Clifton on third might be the blow that would ruin the Tigers. On the day in question, the newspapers had extras every half hour. Hank has left his house; Hank has not left his house; Hank is headed for the synagogue; Hank is headed for the ball park. Iffy the Dopester had reached a point of mental derangement. Along with the White Sox and Indians and Yanks, he was now tangled up with the Old Testament. Hank played and hit two home runs against Boston and that just about did it. I wept openly; everybody did.

I had to leave shortly after that and don't know how Detroit got back to normal. Mr. Ford was definitely bored with my presence, my editors were howling for my return and I missed the parades and hullabaloo that followed the pennant clinching. That may have relieved the tension, and the Cards in the World Series certainly brought them to earth with a bang, but my recovery took years to complete.

PHOTOHANK GREENBERG GALLOPS ACROSS PLATE TO SCOPE HIS GAME-WINNING SECOND HOME RUN IN VITAL 1934 THRILLER AGAINST THE RED SOX PHOTOWINNING COMBINATION for the Tigers included the batting of Hank Greenberg (left), pitching of Schoolboy Rowe (center) and managing of Mickey Cochrane (right).
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)