Hank was the first big-name ballplayer to be drafted in 1941. When he was discharged after eight months in the Army, he looked forward to returning to baseball. That was two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
On December 10, the day Bob Feller enlisted, Hank told reporters in Philadelphia, where he was visiting friends, “I’m going back in. We are in trouble, and there’s only one thing to do--return to the service.” Rather than wait for the call as a member of the reserves, he went to Washington, D. C., and enlisted in the Army Air Forces. In the blank on his application that asked the length for his tour of duty, he stated, for the “duration.”
Hank knew it was going to be a long war and that his decision had probably ended his baseball career. Unlike the twenty-three-year-old Feller, who could afford to miss several years and still return to baseball a relatively young man, Hank, three weeks shy of his thirty-first birthday, could not count on coming back. “This doubtless means I am finished with baseball, and it would be silly for me to say I do not leave it without a pang,” Hank said. “But all of us are confronted with a terrible task--the defense of our country and the fight of our lives.”
Hank had grown up during his first hitch. Until then, baseball had been all he had known since he discovered the game in Crotona Park thirty years earlier, the last twelve as a professional. His pursuit of excellence on its fields had consumed him. In the Army, he had seen the world from a perspective other than that of the privileged life of a professional baseball player. “When I was playing ball, I used to squawk if the hotel mattresses weren’t thick enough,” he said. “I’m afraid I was a little bit selfish. I got in the more important money pretty rapidly.”
A year earlier, Greenberg had reservations about missing the 1941 season. Yet he had answered the call, served his time and could have returned to the Tigers in 1942, at least until he was activated from the reserves. But, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he voluntarily set aside his personal interests to serve the country’s greater good. This was different from giving up a big paycheck for a year; he could be sacrificing his career. The move won him widespread admiration, elevated his status from a baseball star to a true American hero and completed his assimilation from immigrant son to complete citizen.
Taylor Spink praised Greenberg in The Sporting News for his willingness to protect the ideals of American democracy that had allowed for the son of Romanian immigrants to achieve success. Greenberg had become more than a Hebrew star; he had become a national hero who embodied American ideals. Spink gave credit to Hugh Mulcahy for being the first major league ballplayer drafted while the country was still neutral and to Feller for being the first to enlist after the declaration of war. “But the decision announced last week by Hank Greenberg gave the game and the nation a special thrill,” Spink wrote in his editorial. He noted that Hank could have stayed home, said he had already done his bit, but he decided to serve again. “Fans of America, and all baseball, salute him for that decision.”
The New York chapter of Baseball Writers saluted Greenberg with a special award for his “extraordinary service to baseball” at its annual dinner. “Greenberg’s prompt reenlistment after Pearl harbor constitutes a great favor to baseball,” Tom Meany explained in his New York PM column. “All the pious mouthings of the magnates about building up public morale via baseball fail to fool the public. When the highest-paid ballplayer in America voluntarily joins the armed forces, however, it indicates to the fans that ballplayers are as patriotic as any other profession.”
Greenberg returned to the Tigers midway through the 1945 season after serving in the military for 48 months and hit a grand slam on the last day of the season to clinch the pennant for Detroit. The blow became the coup de grace for Hank’s legend. He was everything America imagined in a hero: the immigrant son who worked hard to become the national pastime’s most valuable player, the baseball star who set aside his personal interests to serve the nation in its time of war and now the star returned to fulfill his team’s dream in storybook fashion, giving Americans who wanted simply to resume normal life hope that anything is possible, that in this postwar era they could dare to dream the impossible dream. Fifty years later, Carl Levin, having grown up from the boy who raced around the living room in joy after Greenberg’s grand slam and become a U.S. Senator, recited the lead in the next day’s newspaper: “’Call him the hero of heroes. Call him the champion of champions. Call him the hero of Bengaltown,’” Senator Levin said. “I almost weep remembering what it meant to us, that home run.”
–from Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren