What would happen if the irresistible force hit the immovable object?
In science the debate has raged for centuries leaving the greatest minds over generations unable to say.
But in baseball we had such an event. Just once… but the impact it had on our pastime, our nation and culture cannot be overstated. In fact, without this clash I shudder to think of the world we’d live in today.
Hank Greenberg was a giant of a man both in stature and character. The first Jewish superstar of the entire sporting world, Greenberg would slug his way to two AL MVP titles, and most importantly two World Series reigns on his way to being enshrined in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He put up mind numbing numbers during a career seriously hampered on two fronts.
First, he missed all or part of five seasons during his prime to serve our country proudly during WWII. This time he missed can be measured in finite terms, and historians and fans alike have pondered the numbers he might have achieved had he been able to play. These speculations are part of the fun of baseball lore.
What’s not fun… and impossible to measure both in terms of emotional toll and records attained, is the horrible abuse this quiet man took from fans and fellow pros. As mentioned above, “The Hebrew Hammer” was a Jew. But he was not the stereotypical Jew of the era thought of as athletically weak. No he was a wonder of a man for any age, and antisemitism combined with jealousy made for a particularly ugly brand of cruelty towards him.
Still despite what must have been myriad temptations to lash out verbally… even physically, he let his play do the talking. The integrity of this man was tested particularly in 1938 as he chased Babe Ruth’s single season Home Run record. It’s been widely thought he was pitched around and walked so a Jew would not break the Babe’s record. Even if he thought so privately, Greenberg dismissed those allegations his whole life. He simply wasn’t that kind of man.
In 1947 Greenberg decided to retire after a salary dispute. But before he could the Tigers sold his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates. To their credit, the Pirates worked out a deal impressive enough to keep the slugger around for just one more season.
1947 was of course more renown for the advent of Jackie Robinson.
The phenom had spent a few years developing his incredible talent in college, the Negro Leagues, and the minors. Despite not necessarily being the best player in the Negro Leagues at that time (that honor could have gone to Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige), Robinson had caught the eye of an astute observer.
By the mid 1940’s Dodgers exec Branch Rickey was combing the Negro Leagues in search of a player to add to his Brooklyn based club. But he knew he had to pick the right player, not just in terms of talent, but in temperament as well.
Jackie would of course go on to his own Hall of Fame career, achieving MLB Rookie of the Year honors in 1947, NL MVP in 1949, and a World Series title in 1955. But it was not a forgone conclusion in 1946 that these milestones would ever come about; for back in his Junior College days Robinson ran afoul of the law when he stuck up for a black friend he thought was unlawfully held by Police.
In another incident, this one while serving as an Officer in the Army, Robinson refused to go to the back of the bus due to the color of his skin. He was arrested and court-martialed (It’s interesting to note that this incident occurred more than a decade before Rosa Parks bravery while facing a parallel affront).
For the ‘offense’ during college, Robinson received a suspended sentence after completion of probation. The Army acquitted him of all charges. Nonetheless these incidents, whether justified or not, had to weigh heavily on the mind of Rickey.
As his history has shown, Robinson was a man who instinctively stood up for himself. This is certainly an admirable trait, but in this situation a potentially dangerous one. This wasn’t just about Jackie and his individual pride… it was much larger than that.
Rickey knew that if there was a successful Jackie Robinson, there would be no stopping the men and women of tomorrow. He couldn’t know names like Nat ‘King’ Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Portier, Whoopi Goldberg, Clarence Thomas, Barack Obama… and thousands others. But this was about more than just improving his Dodgers in 1947 (though if the Dodgers upgraded, all the better!). This was about making the world a better place for the future.
It was a lot to put on the shoulders of a man, even a great one. Between the racial construct of the world around him and the genuine concern for his safety, how could anyone hope to play well?
With these critical concerns in mind Rickey confronted Robinson. He knew Jackie had the guts and inclination to stand up for himself, but he wondered if Robinson had the mettle to stand down.
While talking to Robinson about self-control, one speculates if Rickey had the still on-going experience of Hank Greenberg in mind. So after much persuasion Robinson agrees to Rickey’s terms and found himself playing for Montreal of the International League. The location acted like a buffer for at least some of the racial animus, but on the road there was no such protection. It was so bad in fact that a tour of the Southern US was actually cancelled.
Robinson played exceptionally well for Montreal in 1946 prompting his historic call to the ‘Bigs’ the following year. In the Majors however there was no Montreal to hide in, no games that could be removed from the schedule. Even with the experience of Greenberg before him there was no shortage of vocal bigots all around… and in 1947 there was still strength in their numbers.
Pittsburgh to Greenberg had to feel somewhat like Montreal to Robinson. Antisemitism was so prevalent in the world of the 1930’s, in some places it might have been considered mainstream. One of those places happened to be Detroit whose leading citizens Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin were vocal Jew haters.
Before coming to the ‘Steel City’ in 1947 Greenberg played his entire career in Detroit… brilliant, productive, prideful … seething.
Robinsons 1947 thus far was no better than the entirety of Greenberg’s experience. Hostility towards people of color was a way of life in many areas and worse… it was safe to feel that way. For the early part of his rookie year he let hustle on the field be the outlet for his rage.
Baseball is not a contact sport, but the degree of concentration and intensity an individual player brings to bear on his craft can act like a tripwire when faced with an opponent’s aggression towards him. Though this is a gentlemen’s sport, mounds are charged and bullpens emptied.
How long could these two men keep so much anger and emotion in check? Could any human handle such hatred directed towards them without just a single mistake or momentary lapse of judgement? And as awful a notion as it is, one wonders what percentage of those fans in attendance were there secretly hoping to see either Hank or Jackie lose it. With this atmosphere in place, surely that trigger moment leading to great violence could happen on any given day.
The day was May 15th. The diamond was cold as Jackie’s Dodgers visited Hammerin’ Hank’s Pirates in Pittsburgh, PA. And though accounts vary slightly through the haze of decades, all versions have the important elements in place.
#42 emerged from the visitors’ dugout. He took inventory of his surroundings and approached the batters box. Respecting Robinson’s great speed, Greenberg played in to take away the bunt. His already imposing frame looming even larger in close quarters. Robinson dug in at the plate. He took a great cut but didn’t make good contact, hitting a bounding ball to the infield. With his blazing speed though, any contact was a potential hit. So putting the pain from his stinging hands aside, he was off like a bullet.
The infielder had to charge, had to hurry to catch the blistering Robinson… but he also had to wait.
To the lumbering Greenberg the extra space between him and the first base bag resulting from playing in must have seemed an insurmountable distance to close. But with Robinson bearing down on him, close it he did.
Finally, after holding his fire as long as he could for Greenberg to get there, the infielder rushes his throw. It was up the first base line.
Greenberg adjusted, contorting his large frame against his own momentum.
Robinson kept coming. That line was his.
The crash was terrible. The irresistible force met the immovable object… and Jackie went sprawling to the ground. The crowd gasped before the hush. Quiet set in among the attendees now all out of their seats. If the rising blood pressure of fans in a ballpark is like boiling lava in a volcano… the place was about to blow.
The silence became more deafening with each hulking step Greenberg took towards his fallen opponent.
What would he do? And more importantly, what was Jackie thinking? Surely even he had to tense up in a defensive posture as the unknown approached. Would this be the end of Branch Rickey’s ‘Great Experiment’?
Greenberg cast a large shadow over Robinson as he stood upon him.
Then he made his move.
He gestured, extending his arm and offering his hand in assistance. Robinson grabbed Greenberg’s hand and helped himself up. In a time when many white players would not even make eye contact with Robinson, here was one actually touching him.
Words of encouragement came from the veteran’s mouth. “Don’t listen to the stuff that you’re hearing from the sidelines. I heard all of that too. You’re a great player and you’re going to make it.”
After the game, the press asked the rookie what transpired between him and Greenberg. Jackie responded, “Mr. Greenberg is a class act. Class tells, and class sticks out all over the man.”
In truth there could be no other outcome. While these were men of great athletic ability, they were also men of greater purpose. Purpose not just to win games… but to win hearts and minds.
The two would end up having an enduring relationship. Greenberg, who retired after 1947 went on to become a successful GM and owner always with an eye towards equality. For a long time his Cleveland Indians minor and major league teams had more black players than any other organization.
Continuing life as a trail blazer, Robinson had a varied career after baseball. Many don’t know that he was not only the man to break the color barrier on the field, but in 1965 he was also the first black person to be an analyst behind the microphone for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week. He held a great many executive positions in diverse industries, always mindful that where he went, other minorities would follow.
In 1972 All-Star Curt Flood was fighting against a trade from his St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies. Challenging Baseball’s ‘reserve clause’ was not a popular move for Flood and not a single current player stood by his side. He stood completely alone save for two former major leaguers. Mavericks Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson reunited to boldly testify on Flood’s behalf.
Freedom was calling from the future… collect. Once again Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson answered the call and accepted the charges.
Larry Wilson is a writer of award winning commercials, comic books, short stories, and too many published articles on myriad subjects to count. But he lives with a wife, five children, a dog, cat, rabbit, and fish where no one seems to care. He has achieved a state of ignority in his own home.