Hank Greenberg, the first baseball player to earn $100,000 a year and the first Jewish member of the baseball Hall of Fame, died Thursday at his home in Beverly Hills after a 13-month illness with cancer. He was 75.
Greenberg was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1935 as a first baseman and again in 1940 as a left fielder with the Detroit Tigers. Although he had a batting average of .313 for 13 major league seasons, Hammering Hank, as he was called, was best known as a home run hitter.
In 1938, Greenberg hit 58 home runs, challenging Babe Ruth’s record of 60. He hit his 58th with seven games to play. Only Jimmie Foxx of the Philadelphia Athletics in 1932 with 58, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees, who broke Ruth’s record with 61 in 1961, and Ruth hit as many or more home runs in a season as Greenberg.
A right-handed hitter who stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 215 pounds, Greenberg hit more than 30 home runs in six seasons and led the American League five times. He finished his career with 331 homers. In 1937, he drove in 183 runs, only one shy of the league record at the time. It was one of seven times he drove in more than 100 runs.
An unselfish player, Greenberg was an all-league first baseman when he moved to the outfield in 1940 to make room for heavy-hitting Rudy York at first base. He was named to the all-league team as an outfielder and became the first player to be named MVP at two positions.
Greenberg played 13 of his 14 seasons with Detroit, starting in 1933, but he ended his career in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who paid him $100,000. At 36, however, he was hampered by bone chips in his right elbow, hit only 25 home runs and drove in only 74 runs. He retired at the end of the year.
The following season he became part owner of the Cleveland Indians, where he was an executive until 1958, when he became vice president of the Chicago White Sox for two years.
Greenberg also played in four World Series for Detroit, batting .318, hitting five home runs and driving in 22 runs in 23 games in 1934, 1935, 1940 and 1945.
At the peak of his career, Greenberg missed four seasons while serving in World War II.
He was drafted early in 1941 but was discharged in seven months under a provision allowing anyone over 28 to get out of the service. Two days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Greenberg immediately re-enlisted and rose to the rank of captain in the Army Air Corps, earning four battle stars. He served in China and participated in the first land-based bombing of Japan in 1944. He was discharged in 1945.
When he returned to baseball midway through the 1945 season, he was named comeback player of the year for his late-season heroics.
Greenberg hit a grand slam against the St. Louis Browns to clinch the American League pennant for the Tigers on the final day of the season. In the World Series, which Detroit won in seven games over the Chicago Cubs, Greenberg had two home runs and three doubles among his seven hits.
Greenberg, the first Jewish star in baseball, created a stir in Detroit in 1934, his second season in the big leagues, when he observed Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The Tigers were involved in a tight pennant race with the Yankees and lost the day Greenberg was absent. The Tigers won the pennant, however, as Greenberg, batting cleanup, finished with a .339 average.
In 1956 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. At his induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y., he said: “In all my years of being on the playing field, I never dreamed that this would be the final result. I can’t possibly express how I feel. It’s just too wonderful for words. I’m deeply grateful and humble for this great honor. I guess this is what every ballplayer dreams about but never hopes to achieve.”
After retiring from baseball, Greenberg became a familiar figure on the senior tennis circuit, winning a number of celebrity tournaments and playing regularly with entertainers at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club.
He was born Henry Benjamin Greenberg Jan. 1, 1911, in the Bronx, New York City. His father, a Hungarian immigrant, ran a successful business in the textile district.
In 1946 Greenberg married department store heiress Caral Gimbel, from whom he was divorced in 1959. They had three children, sons Glenn and Stephen and daughter Alva. He later remarried and is survived by his wife, Mary Jo, his three children, two brothers, a sister and eight grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private.