Pittsburgh sports fans, take pride: When Hank Greenberg collided with Jackie Robinson
February 10, 2017 12:40 AM
Jackie Robinson in 1948.
Hank Greenberg bats in an exhibition game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians, July 13, 1949.
By Paul Guggenheimer
If there is one thing we Pittsburghers take pride in, it’s all the championships won by our professional sports teams: Four Stanley Cup titles for the Penguins, five World Series wins for the Pirates, and a record six Super Bowl victories for the Steelers, the quest for a seventh delayed once again by a New England Patriots juggernaut.
Yet in spite of this month’s prognostication from Punxsutawney Phil and yesterday’s snowfall, we can take heart in the knowledge that another baseball season is just around the corner. And this year will not only mark the 70th anniversary of the year that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier as well as Hank Greenberg’s debut as a Pirate, but also an on-field collision involving the two of them that shook the baseball world.
It was May 17, 1947. Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodgers were at Forbes Field to play the Pirates and their newly acquired first baseman, the great slugger known as Hammerin’ Hank. The fact that Greenberg was even wearing a Pittsburgh uniform was somewhat of a miracle, made possible by Major League Baseball’s archaic reserve clause which stipulated that his longtime employer, the Detroit Tigers, essentially owned him.
After leading the American League with 44 home runs and 127 RBIs in 1946, Greenberg understandably asked Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs for a raise. What would have seemed like a reasonable request today was taken as an insult by Briggs who, in keeping with the plantation-like attitude of most of the owners of that rather unenlightened era, decided to reward Greenberg’s decade-and-a-half of excellence and dedication to Detroit by selling him to the National League.
So, there was Greenberg, a tall, dark and handsome man standing at his position at first base when Robinson, about a month into his historic rookie season, laid down a perfect bunt that caused the Pirates pitcher to hurry his throw and pull Greenberg off the bag and into the base path of the hard-charging Robinson. The collision knocked both men to the ground. It was just the type of play that many who weren’t comfortable with the so-called Robinson “experiment” felt would lead to a race riot.
But Greenberg wasn’t just a white man. He was also a Jew. Not baseball’s first, but unlike some of the other Jewish players who came before him, he hadn’t changed his name to avoid being identified by his faith. Instead he embraced it, refusing to play on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur. More than any other major leaguer at that moment, Greenberg knew what it was like to be in Robinson’s shoes, having been the object of anti-Semitic slurs during his career.
So, instead of a fight, what the fans at Forbes Field saw that day was Greenberg calmly get up, dust him himself off, and return to his position after Robinson ran to second base.
In the bottom of the inning, Greenberg drew a walk and headed to first base, Robinson’s defensive position. Many in the crowd anticipated a confrontation. But what they got was the sight of baseball’s first Jewish superstar having a friendly conversation with the only black player in the big leagues. Greenberg asked Robinson if he was hurt. Jackie said he was not.
“Don’t pay attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you,” said Greenberg. “Stick in there. I hope that you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I’ve learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier.”
By all accounts, Robinson took the words to heart and was inspired by them. He would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award that season and two years later become the National League’s Most Valuable Player. In 1962, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The 1947 season ended up being Greenberg’s last. He hit 25 home runs for the Pirates that year but was not the same great player he had been in Detroit. The years he had spent in the Army during World War II had taken their toll.
Still, the Pirates and the city of Pittsburgh can boast that they played a part in setting the stage for one of the greatest displays of sportsmanship ever witnessed in a professional arena. And for being the place where Greenberg was finally, justly rewarded financially. After all, it was Pirates owner John Galbreath who made him baseball’s first $100,000 player.
It ranks right up there with the Pirates’ fielding the first all-black starting lineup in Major League Baseball history in September 1971. More than the championships, it’s moments like these that we should be the most proud of.
Paul Guggenheimer is a freelance writer and discussion moderator living in Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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