Saturday, July 16, 2011

84. Hank Greenberg: A Semi-Pro Grows In Brooklyn

Here's a card and story I featured in the premier issue of
21. Just about everyone knows about Hank Greenberg, his being the first Jewish baseball superstar and how he was an idol to so many kids during the depression. His selflessness is well documented in his serving the country during the entire war as an Air Corps officer in India and China and his dramatic return to the Tigers in time to spark their late-season pennant drive and World Series victory in 1945. Instead of all that well-covered ground, I wanted to look at his start in pro ball with the semi-pro Brooklyn Bay Parkways. The Parkways were part of the vibrant semi-pro circuit around the New York metropolitan area from the 1910's to the 1940's. These teams, The Bushwicks being the most famous, were at times the equal of a high-minor league team of the era and occasionally out-drew major league teams in attendance. The New York City semi-pro circuit was the launching pad for many major league stars such as Waite Hoyt, Whitey Ford and Marius Russo as well as the swan song for former players like George Earnshaw, Dazzy Vance and Jeff Tesreau. I could draw and write about these great semi-pro teams constantly and not run out of stories and players to feature, but then that would be boring, wouldn't it? So I'll simply mix them in with Negro Leaguer's, minor league stars, pre-war Japanese players and unknown no-body's who need to be known. As a note to those who purchased the first issue of 21 (thanks!), the drawing you see here is a sightly different version of the one in the journal, I sometimes design a few variations and just pick one in the end, trashing the other versions. For some reason I didn't do that with Greenberg and I stumbled on it the other day looking for something else, so I figured I'd use it in this weeks story...

As a boy growing up in the Bronx, Hank Greenberg played ball every chance he could. Big and uncoordinated at first, he made up for his shortcomings with his passion and relentless practice. In high school he was scouted by the New York Giants but they rejected him so much that they refused to allow him to volunteer to shag fly balls at the Polo Grounds during batting practice. Turning to basketball, he was named the best high school center in the New York City, was granted an athletic scholarship to New York University and had aspirations of becoming a professional basketball player. Still, baseball was his first love and Hank practiced every chance he could, refining his hitting skills by paying neighborhood kids to pitch to him.

One day he was spotted playing sandlot ball and was asked to play for the semi-pro Brooklyn Bay Parkways. The Bay Parkways were an independent team who played local, Negro league and touring teams of barnstorming major leaguers. Like the Brooklyn Bushwicks, these independent teams featured future and former big league players and at times played the same level of ball as a middle-tier minor league team. But the big thing that attracted young Hank was that they were paid to play baseball.

So that Sunday, Greenberg took the long subway ride from his home in the Bronx to Erasmus Field in Brooklyn and played in his first semi-pro game. After the game in which he played poorly, he did not receive any money. Because of his performance he didn’t say anything. The next Sunday he belted 3 home runs in a doubleheader and still did not receive any money at the end of the day. Disappointed, he told the manager he wasn’t coming back the following week. George Lippe, the Bay Parkways skipper, asked why. When told it was because he didn’t get paid, the startled manager said that he thought Greenberg was an amateur and did not want to get paid in order to preserve his eligibility to play collegiate sports. Hank said he didn’t care about that, it took a long time to travel all the way to Brooklyn and he expected to be paid for his contribution to the team. Lippe paid him then and there, promising him $10 for every Sunday doubleheader he played. In 1929 that was a considerable amount of money. Hank Greenberg was now a professional ballplayer.

Practicing his hitting everyday he steadily improved his skills and it began to show. Playing against the talented House Of David traveling team Greenberg had 6 RBI's on 2 home runs and earned his first mention in a newspaper. After 21 games he was batting a heady .454. Scouts started to show interest and Greenberg was brought to the mill town of East Douglas, Massachusetts by Detroit Tigers scout Jean Dubuc. Like the Bay Parkways, East Douglas was part of a highly competitive semi-pro league and after playing there for a few weeks the Washington Senators asked him to come to Boston to work out with the team. Hitting batting practice against the great Walter Johnson, a nervous Greenberg managed to only hit one foul ball after another and was sent back to East Douglas without being offered a contract.

The hometown New York Yankees came knocking next. Scout Paul Kritchell had been keeping an eye on Greenberg since he was in high school and he finally asked Hank to come to Yankee Stadium to talk. While watching a game as guest of the Yankees, Kritchell pointed to first base and declared that Lou Gehrig was all washed up and that if he signed, Hank would soon have his job. The Yankees were the class of the league. To wear the pinstripes was something all ballplayers dream of, but deep down Greenberg knew the 26 year-old Gehrig was far from washed up. If he signed with New York, there was a big likelihood that he would be trapped in the minor leagues for a long time, waiting for the Iron Horse to get injured or retire. As tempting as it was for the kid from the Bronx, he turned the Yankees down. Surprisingly, the Senators made an offer to Hank and the Tigers also came through with a generous contract. Thankful for the way scout Jean Dubuc had treated him, Greenberg signed with Detroit. By 1933 Greenberg would be the starting first baseman of the Detroit Tigers and Lou Gehrig, on his way to set a record for playing in the most consecutive games, wouldn’t give up his job at first until 1939.

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