Admiration Is Deep for Hank Greenberg
Falling in love with a baseball team has lifetime permanency. There’s never a separation or an estrangement. Maybe that’s the most compelling aspect to this game; the passion always remains. You acquire it in adolescence and take it to your grave.
Some men and women carry the flag of affection for the St. Louis Cardinals, San Antonio Missions, Chicago Cubs, York White Roses, Baltimore Orioles, Crisfield Crabbers, Boston Red Sox and even the Macon Peaches. And so it becomes an individual linkage. A tie that binds.
Growing up in Baltimore, when the Orioles were confined to the International League, meant you had to reach elsewhere if there was to be a major league kinship. Why so many boys, who grew into men, seized upon the Detroit Tigers for exercising this vicarious relationship remains a mystery that even the passage of time hasn’t explained or enlightened.
Maybe the mere name, Tigers, suggested a fierce cat of the jungle or perhaps it was the stylish and distinctive uniforms they wore. They also had a favorite player--Henry Louis Greenberg, otherwise known as “Hank” or No. 5 on the scorecard. And they had others with nicknames of Mickey, Goose, Flea, Schoolboy, Boots and the Mechanical Man.
And what other team ever had two real live Indians playing for them at the same time? The Tigers, of course, had Elon (Chief) Hogsett and Rudy York. Now if you’re dealing in a count of minorities, it would seem Hogsett would qualify under any rationale. He was Indian, to begin with, was left-handed and threw with a submarine delivery.
One of the strong incentives to survive elementary school was a father’s promise that if his son somehow got a passing report card it would be rewarded with a trip to Washington to see the Tigers; certainly not the Senators, who were consistently winless and colorless.
The Tigers were managed by a man with abnormally protruding ears. He also was a catcher who batted high in the lineup and had more than the normal “catcher’s speed” on the bases. His name was Gordon Stanley “Mickey” Cochrane. And he caught such pitchers as Lynwood “Schoolboy” Rowe, Tommy Bridges, Alvin Crowder, Roxie Lawson and Eldon Auker.
The backup catcher to Cochrane was Ray Hayworth and beyond him was a bullpen catcher, the little known Frankie Reiber. Indeed, the former commissioner of baseball, the erudite and much respected Bowie Kuhn, was a Tigers’ fanatic of that same era and liked to stand around reminiscing about their earlier deeds. He could enumerate and elucidate about every player on the team, but Reiber somehow evaded him.
Watching the Tigers, with future Hall of Fame enshrinees Greenberg, Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer and Leon “Goose” Goslin in the lineup, made for spectacular entertainment. One year, Greenberg was using a first baseman’s mitt that was ruled illegal. In another season, 1938, he chased after Babe Ruth and wound up with 58 home runs.
Then there was the trauma of Cochrane being beaned by Bump Hadley of the New York Yankees and suffering a fractured skull that was so severe he hovered close to death and never played another game. A classmate, James O’Conor Gentry, wrote a letter to cheer him up during his convalescence and, in return, received a kind acknowledgement.
That was the main topic of conversation in the old neighborhood schoolyard. After all, Gentry had heard from Cochrane, which made both of them something special. Kids all across the country cried when Mickey got hurt and it had nothing to do with provincialism.
On a visit to Washington, after a Tigers-Senators game was over, a child vaulted over the front row of seats and, with autograph book in hand, went off in pursuit of his hero, the illustrious Greenberg, who was disappearing into the shadows of the dugout tunnel. When we shouted his name it was a desperate call of “Hank, Hank, Hank.”
It got his attention. He turned around, retraced his steps and signed a signature we still have, right next to one of his brother, Joe, who played third base for the Orioles. So the Brothers Greenberg were in a book that’s still a prized possession, a keepsake.
Years later, when the small boy became a sportswriter, by mere coincidence, he sat at the same luncheon table in Chicago with Greenberg and related the story of how he had once come back to sign his name for a little admirer who revered him deeply. Greenberg was visibly moved, put out his hand and said, “Thanks; let’s always be friends.”