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Did anti-semitism prevent Hank Greenberg from breaking Ruth's home run record?

Mar 22, 2010, 8:58 AM EDT

Hank Greenberg.jpgHoward Megdal thinks so, arguing that Greenberg experienced an uncharacteristic spike in walk rates towards the end of his 1938 season.  Megdal says “the American League didn’t seem exactly thrilled with Greenberg’s
pursuit,” and concludes that “the statistical record stands as evidence that Greenberg’s religion
might have been an additional barrier” to him in surpassing Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season.

Jack Marshall simply isn’t having it. He notes just how small a sample size Megdal is looking at, notes that Greenberg’s 1938 walk total isn’t exactly a big outlier for him and notes that other record-challenging sluggers walked and awful lot, likely due to the fact that their home run tears struck fear in pitchers’ hearts. Marshall acknowledges that Greenberg had to deal with significant anti-Semitism during his career, but sees no evidence that it had anything to do with him hitting 58 homers in 1938 instead of 60.

I’m with Marshall on this one. The antisemitic mood of the nation in general and baseball in particular in the late 30s is beyond dispute, but the evidence Megdal presents here is less than compelling. Is it possible that Greenberg wasn’t getting anything to hit because he was a Jew? Most definitely. It’s just not the sort of thing, I think, that can be divined from the statistical record alone.  At least this record.

  1. Greg - Mar 22, 2010 at 9:17 AM

    This depends most times on who is viewing the possibilities. If a Jew is viewing this, they would tend to side with anti-Semitism view. A white person would tend to look at this from a White point of view.
    Who knows what the actual truth in this situation was…

  2. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 22, 2010 at 9:18 AM

    Jews aren’t white?
    (I know what you’re saying; just effing around)

  3. BC - Mar 22, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    I read something on this a while ago. Apparently what Greenberg faced in terms of death threats, etc. was on a par with when Hank Aaron faced – there was just a lot less of a national media to report it all. Whether the walks were a result of that, I don’t know. I’d think if they REALLY didn’t want to have him break the record, they have beaned him instead.

  4. Jack Meoffer - Mar 22, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    Of course Howard Megdal is going to make this accusation. As a Jewish person he is going to try to make a claim that just because Greenberg fell short that this is the reason why. All races and religons are going to try to make a point if “one of their own” falls short of breaking a record. Megdal’s arugment is weak at best. He probably had nothing to write for the day.

  5. ditmars1929 - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    I understand the general bias in the country at the time, but I have a hard time believing a major league pitcher trying to win a game is going to look at the batter stepping into the box and think, “Oh, it’s one of those Jews. Guess I’ll just walk him.”

  6. enough already - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:06 AM

    Seriously, Jews aren’t white?
    Capcha: The swartz – coincidence?

  7. Howard Megdal - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    Marshall misstates my argument greatly. I make it clear in the piece that nothing definitive can be gleaned from this. But given that this has been out there for more than 70 years, I believe the historical record is very interesting. I’ve been on the book tour for The Baseball Talmud for a year, and I get asked about this question at every single stop. So it is a topic well worth investigating.
    I’ve posted a detailed response below his piece. I’d urge everyone to read my piece, rather than the inaccurate summary of my piece Marshall presents.

  8. ANGRY - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    The prejudice embedded in the comment made by Greg is not something to just “eff” around with.
    “If a Jew is viewing this….”, “A white person…..”
    His question should have been properly stated as “non-Jews”. By saying “white person” he also excludes blacks, Asians……
    Craig, you blew it. Greg, you need help

  9. Ice Berg - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    Seconded. You bleeeewwww it, Craig.

  10. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    Eh, so I blew it. It happens. I try to give the benefit of the doubt if at all possible so I didn’t assume bigotry in the comment there. I’ve never heard of someone going after Jews by calling them “non-white,” so I simply assumed poor word choice. If there was more going on with that comment than I assumed, apologies.

  11. smokehouse - Mar 22, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    Look at Ryan Howards walk ratio in 2006 in the last three weeks (especially Atlanta)of the season. Howard ended with 58 homers but should have had well over 60 but they walked him. A lot of times. He is black. Craig Calcaterra doesn’t live in the real world.

  12. Jack Marshall - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    With due respect to Howard Megdal, whom I do respect (but believe he was having an off-day when he wrote this), I was quite fair to his “argument,” which used weak and misleading statistical analysis to “prove” that on-field conduct was motivated by bias, to solve what he calls a “72-year-old mystery” when the man involved, Hank Greenberg,said that he just “ran out of gas” when interviewed more than 40 years ago. Howard objects to my suggestion that he intentionally left out quotes and facts that weakened his already gossamer-thin case, and if he did not do so intentionally, I regret the accusation.

  13. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    So it’s your argument that the Braves (team of black home run champ Hank Aaron) were walking Ryan Howard so he wouldn’t break the home run record of black home run champion Barry Bonds.
    Those racist bastards.

  14. BC - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    You didn’t blow it at all. Not saying that it’s necessarily true as far as what happened on the field, but yes, Greenberg took a lot of —t because of his religion. People forget the history of this country sometimes. There was a time when being Irish or Italian was to say the very least looked down upon – why do you think so many families changed their names when immigrating? Heck, this country didn’t elect a Catholic president until 1960. Discrimination has always been there unfortunately and has affected people’s jobs and lives for years. The 1920s and 30s were particularly rough for those of the Jewish faith. I wouldn’t totally rule out that what the article stated about Greenbarg was true. It could have happened.

  15. Ber - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    If you’re going to talk about offensive comments, I would say that Jack Meoffer’s is more so than Gregs. The statement that A jewish person (or any race for that matter) would not be capable of objective reasoning about someone of his own people sounds kinda offensive to me. Greg’s comment could just be a poor choice of words.

  16. Howard Megdal - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    Why don’t we link to your piece, let readers read your language/objections in full, and our back-and-forth about it, and decide on their own?
    Your “summary” posted “above” with liberal use of “quote marks” doesn’t do either of our perspectives justice, in my opinion.

  17. Howard Megdal - Mar 22, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    Why don’t we link to your piece, let readers read your language/objections in full, and our back-and-forth about it, and decide on their own?
    Your “summary” posted “above” with liberal use of “quote marks” doesn’t do either of our perspectives justice, in my opinion.

  18. smsetnor - Mar 22, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Yeah, we here in Atlanta certainly don’t want black home run champions. But that’s pretty understandable when you look at our demorgraphics. Nary a black man or woman in sight. That’s why we petitioned the Mayor to make Ted Turner make Bobby Cox walk Ryan Howard.
    And despite his employment by the Braves and the hundreds of picture of Hank Aaron around the park, he remains an abberation for the Braves. Before and after Hank, we’ve had all White (Non Jew too!!11!) players here.

  19. The Noodle - Mar 22, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    I am jewish and I disagree with the finding. Mathematically.

  20. Ralph Kramden - Mar 22, 2010 at 1:18 PM

    Megdal’s analysis isn’t enough to convince me, and I doubt there’s a big enough sample size to really tell. Absent some smoking gun comments by managers or catchers or pitchers, there’s not much substance here.
    But, I gotta tell ya, in the ’30s Jews were not very “white”. There was a lot of institutional anti-semitism, and Jews were even excluded from owning real estate in some places until the 50s.

  21. Dan in Katonah - Mar 22, 2010 at 1:24 PM

    Maybe late in the year there were a lot of rookie call-ups who lacked control of the strike zone.
    Maybe the big league pitchers were getting tired like Greenberg apparently was.
    Maybe the sample size is too small to draw a conclusion.
    Maybe pitchers and teams didn’t want the record broken because they revered Ruth (ask Roger Maris, a white, non-jewish ballplayer how welcome his assault on the singe season record was).
    Maybe pitchers were avoiding throwing strikes because Greenberg was killing the ball.
    Maybe, maybe, maybe….
    Maybe if my aunt had balls she’d be my uncle.

  22. Rudy Gamble - Mar 22, 2010 at 1:38 PM

    Note: I am Jewish (despite my nom de plume and blogging avatar) and:
    1) Don’t really have a problem with the article which seems to qualify the data isn’t iron-clad
    2) Agree with most on the comments that I’m not swayed by it.
    What I find most amusing, though, is that the New York Times printed this vs. a blog. Wasn’t it just a year ago that a sports blogger was raked over the coals for suggesting Raul Ibanez might be on steroids without conclusive proof? How is the suggestion that 1930’s pitchers let their anti-Semitism affect how they pitched a batter any less speculative?
    Again, I have no issue with the speculation and letting the reader decide accordingly. But I’d like to see the keepers of newspaper journalism integrity come down on the NYTimes for printing speculation like this as harshly as they do when a blogger does it.

  23. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Mar 22, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    Usually it’s a list of Ifs (if, if, if), but +1 for the quote

  24. Skids - Mar 22, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Must be a slow race day, we have to go back 70 years to report on something racist. This is why it’ll never die, people won’t let it.

  25. ANGRY - Mar 22, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    Remarkably cavalier of you, Blew it? OH WELL. Never heard of Jews referred to as no-white? White Supremacists consider any Non-Christian white to be non-white.
    Grow up

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