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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. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 22, 2010 at 2:25 PM

    I tend not to hang out with many white supremacists.

  2. The Common Man - Mar 22, 2010 at 2:48 PM

    Oh stop, dude. It’s an interesting question and a historical mystery.
    And anyway, this article was suggested by a commenter above and pretty much demolishes the idea that Greenberg was discriminated against by AL pitchers in any kind of systematic way. With math!
    http://www.mlbexpertanalysis.com/blog/?p=7
    Given his aches today, my recaptcha is very topical: Albert coarsens

  3. Jack Marshall - Mar 22, 2010 at 3:33 PM

    Thanks, Noodle—I just put a link to your analysis in my article.

  4. Jack Marshall - Mar 22, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    You are absolutely correct: it is EXACTLY like the steroid speculation pieces in principle, the only difference being that no individual is named as a possible bigot, just any pitcher who may have walked Hank.And obviously I DO have a problem with it.

  5. Rays fan - Mar 22, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    Of course, Greenberg had at least one HR taken away because a rainout ended a game before it became official. Also, I’ve read that two of his doubles that year were ground rule doubles hit into a screen that would have been HRs in 1927 (because said screen wasn’t there that year). That’d have been 61 if all three of those counted & we wouldn’t be having any debate over whether anti-Semitism was involved.
    Also, was anit-Semitism involved in 1937 when he fell 1 RBI short of Lou Gehrig’s record?
    This isn’t to say anti-Semitism couldn’t have played a part; it could have. However, I don’t find the case for it compelling.
    Hank Greenberg himself dismissed the speculation as “crazy stories.” I think I’ll go with his opinion.
    http://www.historicbaseball.com/players/g/greenberg_hank.html

  6. Rudy Gamble - Mar 22, 2010 at 4:28 PM

    You’re right. Naming an individual is a step further in speculating. It’s not like an article speculating steroid usage amongst MLB players would’ve created the same fuss.
    That said, it’s a hazy line since there’s an implicit speculation that any pitcher who walked Greenberg at that time might have had anti-semitic motives.

  7. Jack Marshall - Mar 22, 2010 at 5:07 PM

    Rudy: that was my problem with it. I don’t want to get Howard mad at me all over again, but if he had, for example, taken a list of all the pitchers who issued walks to Greenberg, then cross-referenced them to quotes, memberships and actions hostile to Jews, then showed that such pitchers walked Hank a significantly higher percentage of the time, and in a proportion higher than their control records would predict—well, then I’d be listening. The bottom line is “it could have happened” just isn’t a fair starting point. “Is there valid reason to believe it might have happened?” is the bare minimum to ask the question, and I don’t see it.

  8. Howard Megdal - Mar 22, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    Well, we’ll agree to disagree on which method would be more accurate. To be clear- you’d rather I play the McCarthyite game of guilt by association, calling out each individual pitcher who walked Greenberg, then look at any of their associations, and try to reconstruct what was in their hearts.
    But taking the objective, historical record- that’s irresponsible?
    I guess that makes as much sense as claiming that “I swear, I was not calling you an unethical journalist” just below an article where you wrote:
    “‘I’m just asking questions,'” is a common protest from the unethical journalist…” then link to my piece using the phrase “Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Post) has found a new use for it.”
    I mean, come on, Jack. Who are you kidding?

  9. Jack Marshall - Mar 22, 2010 at 6:33 PM

    Now, now, Howard—you are really suggesting that it’s fairer to tar ALL the 1938 AL pitchers with an innuendo of anti-Semitism than to make some effort to determine whether such a conclusion is even plausible? What if a chunk of those pitchers had Jewish wives? What is others were outspoken friends of Greenberg? Stats are a safe sniper shot to impugn a whole group, but it’s hardly fair. Before I accuse someone of being a bigot, I’d like to see some real indication of a tendency toward bigotry, rather than evidence of a16 extra walks worth of wildness bestowed on one player who happened to be a Jew.
    As I wrote in our e-mail exchange, I believe the device you used is unethical, and is favored by unethical writers. I do not consider you unethical, because I know your work, But you were just wrong this time.

  10. Howard Megdal - Mar 22, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    To be clear, Jack: the question is not, “Was every AL pitcher an anti-Semite?” Rather, it is, “Was Hank Greenberg treated differently than other sluggers chasing Ruth’s record?”
    And the answer, thanks to the historical record, is yes.
    Now as to why, I make it clear, anti-Semitism may be only one of the reasons. Only the strawman you created said anything definitive about Greenberg and anti-Semitism.
    Yet somehow, you seem to believe that calling out every pitcher by name, then mentioning unsavory associations they had, would be the responsible thing to do.
    To extrapolate that to steroids: my approach would be to acknowledge that there were in baseball at the time, and look at the stats to see what effect they may have had on the league as a whole. Your approach would be to name every player in the American League, then mention which of them went to Dr. Galea or hung out with Jose Canseco.
    And your tortured point about how you aren’t calling me an unethical journalist because you told me so in e-mail, but it remains in your lead- well, I can’t begin to imagine how you can feel comfortable with that discrepancy.

  11. soulja boy - Mar 23, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    Shut yo Mouth

  12. mosho - Mar 23, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    this whole topic was discussed intelligently here:
    http://www.mlbexpertanalysis.com/blog/?p=7#comments

  13. Rays fan - Mar 23, 2010 at 12:59 PM

    http://www.baseball-almanac.com/stadium/tiger_stadium.shtml
    One thing I didn’t write about yesterday was the possibility of some animosity due to Hank Greenberg declining to play on Yom Kippur, during the 1934 pennant race. However, the website above included this short poem by Edgar Guest, which appeared in the Detroit Free Press on September 13, 1934:
    We shall miss him on the field
    and we shall miss him at the bat
    But he’s true to his religion
    and I honor him for that!
    Obviously Mr Guest and the Detroit Free Press were not anti-Semitic.
    While there were (and are) anti-Semitic idiots in this country, I’m pretty sure that there were many more reasonable people, like Edward Guest.
    As I stated in my first response to this story, Greenberg could just as easily wound up with 61 HRs just by a couple tweaks of happenstance rather than any sinister anti-Jewish feelings by anyone (even subconscious ones). Also, the same theory would then have to be applied to 1937 when he came within 1 RBI of Lou Gehrig’s record.

  14. Jay - Apr 6, 2010 at 10:51 AM

    Stop being so Jewish.

  15. Sub-dude - Apr 10, 2010 at 5:19 AM

    Ron Kuby, the Jewish lawyer, has publicly stated that he does not identify himself as a white man. Having sheltered himself, he then goes on to make broad negative statements about white men. How many Jews see things this way?
    The irony is that Kuby’s smears are the same ones made about Jews in pre-war Europe: that they control everything, work together behind the scenes, are greedy, win by cheating, etc. White men, as Jews were, are depicted as a homogenous mass of evil, not as ordinary struggling individuals. To pile irony on irony, these smears of white men are generated in the Hollywood and the national media in which Jewish people are so active!
    And here’s another telling case. “White collar crime” has become a code phrase for “crimes committed by white male executives.” You’ll hear people say things such as “Black street criminals do far less harm than white-collar criminals.” We all know exactly what people mean when they say that. But, guess what? Executive crimes such as embezzlement and fraud are committed more frequently by black people than by white! That one really gets swept under the carpet in the rush to smear white men.
    American people have been coached so carefully that–listen at any cocktail party–making broad attacks against white men has become the only fashionable bigotry.
    What was it that black lady said? “We’re not going to let the white boys win this one.” She was not denounced as a bigot for that statement. Imagine if some prominent person said, “We’re not going to let the black boys win this one.” The shit would hit the fan!

  16. Jason - Apr 11, 2010 at 10:24 PM

    Howard, what i notice going through the September game logs, is in the games where Hank Greenberg walks two times or more, what I notice is how bad the pitchers are.
    These pitchers had BB/9 ranging from 2 to about 7 (mostly above 4). A lot of them were just bad pitchers with little control. And as the best hitter on the team, Greenberg was going to walk.
    I notice one of the three walk games was on Sept 3 against the CWS pitch Jack Knott, who must of been so determined to stop Greenberg that 9 days later he only walked him once in 4 PA, giving up a HR in one of the other plate appearences…
    “Now as to why, I make it clear, anti-Semitism may be only one of the reasons.”
    That may be one of the more dishonest things I have ever read. When you use the stats you did, without the context of the low base size, or the quality of the pitching, the game situation (close game, would teams pitch around him today in the same situation) and 1000 other reasons, and ONLY present the case foranti-semitism, then you are saying that was the cause, and including one line at the end of the article saying it might be the reason DOES NOT CHANGE THAT.
    AND, you offered no evidence why anyone should doubt the opinion of the man himself who says anti-semitism had nothing to do with it.
    No one is doubting anti-semitism existed then or still does, and I am not even saying that it had nothing to do with stopping Greenberg, all I am saying is the case you presented is pathetic, and until someone presents better evidence, I will go with the word of the man himself.

  17. Jason - Apr 11, 2010 at 10:33 PM

    Adding on, but what I find most remarkable was how in September he wasn’t hit by one pitch which to me in those days would have been the more likely way to try and stop someone.
    Or how once he got his 58th home run is walk rate for September dropped, it was actually lower in the last 5 games than during the rest of the month.

  18. GimmesomeSteel - Apr 17, 2010 at 9:59 AM

    My late father often told me that Greenberg fell short not because of opposing pitchers but because the umpires started calling an increasingly bigger strike zone on him. The mystery to him was whether this was an individual thing, groupthink among the umps, or a David Stern-type unspoken directive from above within MLB.

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