Throughout his career, Jackie Robinson played with and against numerous Jewish Major Leaguers in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Burt and Benita Boxerman’s two-volume series Jews And Baseball, Larry Rutman’s American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball, Howard Megdal‘s The Baseball Talmud, Peter Ephross and Martin Abramowitz’s Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words, and The Big Book of Jewish Baseball by Peter and Joachim Horvitz are all excellent resources for learning more about Jewish Major Leaguers on the era.
The most notable, however, of Robinson’s Jewish opponents was Hank Greenberg.
Robinson faced Greenberg during Robinson’s 1947 rookie season and Greenberg’s last season as a player.
A touching scene in 42 shows Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese placing an arm around Robinson on May 13, 1947 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, comforting Robinson while fans hurled racial epitaphs. The tear-jerking scene is given the full Hollywood treatment, and is a high point of the movie. According to ESPN.com, however, it may not have happened as depicted in the film.
What happened on May 15, when Brooklyn played against Pittsburgh — Greenberg’s team — that year is clear.
As described by Stephen Norword and Harold Brackman in their SABR award-winning research paper, “Going to Bat for Jackie Robinson: The Jewish Role in Breaking Baseball’s Color Line.”
“The most dramatic
display of Jewish solidarity with Jackie Robinson came from Hank
Greenberg. The legendary Detroit Tiger slugger who hit 58 home runs in 1938, then
with the Pittsburgh Pirates in his last season, was the first opposing player to
offer Robinson encouragement. Probably no major leaguer before Robinson
had been more abused by opposing players and fans than Greenberg, who was
continually taunted for being Jewish.
“On May 15, 1947,
in a game between the Pirates and the Dodgers, Robinson laid down a
perfect bunt and streaked down the line to first. The pitcher’s
throw pulled first
baseman Greenberg off the bag. Reaching for the throw, he collided with Robinson, who
was able to get up and reach second. The next inning Greenberg walked,
and asked Robinson, who was playing first base, if he had been hurt in the
collision. Assured by Robinson that he hadn’t been, Greenberg said to him, ‘Don’t pay any attention to these guys who are trying to make it
hard for you. Stick in
there … . I hope you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I’ve
learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier.'”
Despite wide coverage of the episode at the time it took place — Robinson old the New York Times, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.” — the conversation between Robinson and Greenberg is given scant attention by Robinson’s biographers.
Both Robinson and Greenberg, however, mention it in their autobiographies; Robinson in Jackie Robinson: My Own Story (co-written by African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith, who chronicled Robinson’s rookie season for the Pittsburgh Courier), and Greenberg in Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life (co-authored by Ira Bekow).
“Here were our guys, a bunch of ignorant, stupid Southerners who couldn’t speak properly … and all they could do was make jokes about Jackie. The couldn’t recognize that they had a special person in front of them. … I identified with Jackie Robinson. I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way. Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheenie and a Jew all the time.”
John Rosengren‘s new biography of Greenberg, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, also recounts the episode (drawing on The Story of My Life as a source).
“The moment held lasting significance for Robinson,” writes Rosengren. “It also burnished Hank’s reputation as a hero for the way he conducted himself.”
The books Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, Two Pioneers: How Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson Transformed Baseball – and America and When Jackie and Hank Met also touch, to varying extents, on Greenberg and Robinson’s interaction.
Aviva Kempner‘s documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the more recent Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story and the YouTube documentary, Jewish Activism in Baseball Part 5: Life Long Friendship, one of a series of short documentary vignettes on the topic of Jews in baseball, also detail the encounter.
“My Dad said, many times, that he didn’t know what having it bad was until he saw what Jackie Robinson went through in 1947,” recounts Steve Greenberg, Hank’s son, in Life and Times.
Two baseball cards also commemorate Robinson and Greenberg’s infamous interaction.
These include a 2002 Fleer “Rival Factions” card and a 2008 Jewish Major Leaguers issue.
The Fleer card includes standard and limited edition variations.
The later include cards featuring swatches of Robinson’s game used pants, slices of Greenberg’s bats, or both.
Beckett.com offers a checklist of the various issues.
As of the time of this posting, no Beckett Marketplace seller is offering the card. Prices, when collectors can find the Fleer cards on eBay or Amazon, range from $10-$100 or more, depending on the scarcity of the particular issue.
While potentitally difficult and costly to obtain, the Robinson pants/Greenberg bat variation (which saw a limited production of just 50 cards) would represent a jewel in the crown of any Jewish baseball card collector, in my opinion.
The only problem with the card is that it depicts Greenberg in his Detroit Tigers uniform. Greenberg, of course, played for the Pirates when he faced Robinson, and for the Tigers for years prior to Robinson’s major league debut. As such, Greenberg as a Tiger was never a “rival” of Robinson’s.
Even with this historical inaccuracy, I think the card is a terrific addition to any Jewish baseball collection.
The Jewish Major Leaguers card is much more accessible to buyers who don’t have deep pockets.
Card #50 in the 2008 “Hank Greenberg 75th Anniversary Edition of the JML series, titled “An Encounter,” can be found on Amazon
At the time of this posting, no Beckett Marketplace or eBay sellers were offering the 2008 JML card.
Do JewishSportsCollectibles.com readers know of other Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson memorabilia? Let JSC know by commenting below.
We’ll look at the ties between, and collectibles associated with, Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Sandy Koufax in the next posting in this series. Stay tuned.