Imagine baseball history without Hank Greenberg. It almost happened.
The year was 1930. The scene was the Tigers’ spring training camp in Tampa, Florida. Taking his first overnight train ride was Greenberg, a lanky, awkward teenager from the Bronx who had been signed to a contract by the same scout who had signed Lou Gehrig.
Greenberg was a sensitive youngster, away from home for the first time. He was in awe of his surroundings, as any 19-year-old in a foreign and imposing setting would be. Years later, he recorded his impressions. “I was in the same clubhouse and on the same field with some of the outstanding ballplayers whom I had read about: Dale Alexander, Harry Rice, Roy Johnson, Marty McManus, Bob ‘Fat’ Fothergill, Waite Hoyt, Charlie Gehringer. I sat around the clubhouse with my eyes wide open and my mouth shut and just listened to them and watched them. They were all grown men, well groomed and well dressed, who had been in the major leagues for some time. I guess most of them couldn’t understand why I was there.”
The veterans were clannish, and the quiet, unsure youngster found it hard to talk to anyone except manager Bucky Harris. Billy Rogell, who had played three seasons with the Red Sox in the 1920s, also was a newcomer to the team. The shortstop observed Greenberg with interest. As Greenberg later described himself, he was “an eager beaver and chased a lot of balls and did a lot of shagging, and they occasionally let me go to bat.”
Greenberg’s opportunities to show what he was capable of in batting practice were limited. Then, one day, Greenberg was invited to dig in at the plate. The ball flew off his bat. Then, to everyone’s horror, Greenberg “hit a line drive that hit one of our pitchers on the knee,” Rogell recalled. “The pitcher grabbed a ball and threw it at Hank, yelling ‘Goddamn Jew!’ and all that shit, you know, that goes along with it.”
Greenberg’s own account of the incident in his autobiography was benign. “One day in batting practice I hit a ball back to the mound and sent lefty Phil Page to the doctor,” he wrote. “A few minutes later I decked another pitcher, Staples, with a line shot just over his head, and a few of the regulars grumbled about it as though I was trying to destroy the pitching staff out of spite.”
The team was staying at the Tampa Bay Hotel. That evening, after dinner, Rogell was taking a stroll down by the canal when he came across a tall figure standing in the dark. It was Greenberg. He was alone, and sobbing.
“What’s the matter with you?” Rogell asked.
“I’m leaving the Tigers,” Greenberg said. “I’m gonna quit and go home.”
Rogell, a scrappy sort who’d grown up fending for himself as an orphan on Chicago’s South Side, was incredulous that anyone would give up so easily, no matter how isolated and homesick he felt. A shot at playing big-league ball was a rare privilege.
“You’re gonna let that guy run you out of baseball?” he told Greenberg. “Don’t be silly. Go out and outplay the bastards.”
And he did, Rogell recalled. Enduring torrents of abuse from bench jockeys and leather-lunged fans in the minor and major leagues, Greenberg let his play do most of his talking. Over time, his work ethic would become almost legendary. Even as an established star and two-time American League MVP, he would take batting practice until his hands blistered and bled, paying neighborhood kids out of his own pocket to shag balls, after which he’d get in some much-needed fielding practice. “I’ll tell you, I used to hit ground balls to him after everybody’d left,” Rogell said. “My hands got sore, for chrissakes. But it helped make a good first baseman out of him. He wasn’t a natural. He worked at it.”
Greenberg got into only one game with the Tigers in 1930, going hitless in his only at-bat while spending most of the season in the minors. He worked his way up through the ranks – ”worked” being the operative word – before joining the big club for good in 1933. The rest of Hammerin’ Hank’s story is familiar. But who knows? His Hall of Fame career might never have happened if Billy Rogell hadn’t given the wet-eyed teenager a much-needed pep talk one evening in Tampa.