Hank’s return was more than an aging ballplayer’s personal quest to regain his former job. Soon as Greenberg returned to Detroit, a front page Detroit Jewish Chronicle headline read, “Greenberg Lifts Pennant Hopes.” That’s what Greenberg gave the Jews—hope—a commodity in short supply that past decade. If he could succeed again, prove to be the star he had been, he could once again raise their spirits and rekindle that beacon of hope that Hitler had nearly extinguished.
To all Americans, he represented another sort of hope. They had coped with more than lousy baseball the past few years; they had endured gas rationing, abstained from eating meat, worked extra hours and buried loved ones who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, they turned to the national pastime for healing. If the players could return, they could restore the game to its previous dignity and glory, and, in so doing, restore a sense of normalcy to the nation, something Americans desperately craved. Hank was the test case.
Those servicemen who once earned their living playing ball looked to Hank to see if they, too, might be able to play again and return to gainful employment. In the days leading to his return, the Associated Press’ Whitney Martin had written: “He will be watched as a symbol of hope to all the other ballplayers in the service who fear their absence from the game might impair their effectiveness and money-earning capacity.”
The feeling was that if Hank, with his skills, fitness and work ethic, couldn’t do it, then nobody could. “We’ll all have the answer pretty soon,” said Al Simmons, Hank’s onetime teammate. “Hank Greenberg is coming back. If he can’t make it, all the rest of them better cash in their GI pay and open a poolroom somewhere.”
The other returning players would not have it as tough as Hank, though. He was older and had been gone longer than most. Only about twenty-five of the approximately 500 big leaguers who served spent more than three years away from the game. What’s more, while DiMaggio powered the Santa Ana Army Air Base nine, Johnny Mize played the Pacific Islands circuit and Enos Slaughter starred for the 509th Squadron San Antonio base team, Hank had hardly swung a bat since hitting his two homers on May 6, 1941. He had played only a few times: at a Michigan prison, during a spring training exhibition in Orlando, in a War Bond game at the Polo Grounds, plus a handful of softball games in China. Many other ballplayers kept their skills tuned while in the service; not Hank.
The largest crowd of the year so far turned out at Briggs Stadium to see Hank’s return in the Sunday doubleheader against Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. The 48,811 faithful—which included more than 1,000 servicemen granted free admission—cheered Hank heartily each time he came to bat as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter. His hands still blistered, he was determined to do well for them. In his first three at-bats, he flied out twice to the right fielder Hal Peck and popped up to the catcher. His timing had been a bit off, slow in getting his 36-ounce Louisville Slugger around on pitches, but his eye had been good, taking three balls in two of his first at-bats. He walked on four straight pitches in his fourth at-bat in the seventh inning. The home plate umpire, Bill Summers, remarked after the game that he found Hank’s ability to pick out the good pitches “nothing short of amazing.”
Hank had only one fielding chance, a long fly in the top of the eighth inning that he pulled down in front of the left field fence. But it hurt getting to the ball. In the seventh, Hank had pulled his left hamstring running from first to third on Doc Cramer’s single.
Hank borrowed Cramer’s 34-ounce bat in the Tigers’ half of the eighth. He hoped the lighter bat would help him get around better on the ball. Once again, the fans cheered him when he stepped to the plate.
Across the state of Michigan, down into Ohio and Indiana, and up into Canada—as far as the WXYZ radio signal carried, baseball fans listened to Harry Heilmann’s call of the game. Hank faced Charlie Gassaway, a twenty-six-year-old wartime replacement pitcher. Heilmann let his listeners know that Greenberg watched three straight balls from the lefty Gassaway then took the fourth pitch for a called strike. On Gassaway’s next pitch, Hank whipped around Cramer’s 34-ounce bat and got all of it. The fans rose at the familiar crack. “Trouble,” Heilmann called. “Trouble!”
The ball landed in the left field pavilion, 370 feet away. The crowd’s cheers shook the steel girders of Briggs Stadium, rippled across the field and rumbled down Michigan Avenue. The standing ovation continued while Hank rounded the bases. Harry Heilmann didn’t need to say anything more. He dangled the microphone by its cord outside the press box.
“Listen,” he finally said quietly, “to the voice of baseball.”
–from Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren