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Watch Your Back, Ryan Braun

March 21, 2010

I just saw an interesting sports piece by Howard Megdal in the Times that I had missed.  Apparently there is a long-running debate about whether American League pitchers walked Hank Greenberg on purpose in 1938 as he was approaching Babe Ruth’s home run record.  (As an aside, Greenberg was an alum of the defunct James Monroe High School in the Bronx.)   The theory is that “they” didn’t want a Jew to break the record, and so pitched around him:

Some members of Greenberg’s family and legions of his fans believed that anti-Semitic pitchers had walked Greenberg often to keep him from a fair shot at Ruth, who set the record in 1927.  Greenberg, however, called such a view “pure baloney.”  To shift responsibility for his falling short of the record onto others would have been out of character.

Greenberg received many more walks as he chased Ruth in 1938 than he did in the rest of his career.  Almost no other hitter going after the home run record had anything like Greenberg’s late-season spike in bases on balls.  He had 119 walks to lead the A.L., the only time he did so, and they accounted for 17.5 percent of his 681 plate appearances.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, or if it’s fair to attribute every walk to Greenberg by every pitcher to overt or covert anti-Semitism (in fact, I know it’s not fair).   That said, I guess I wouldn’t be surprising if anti-Semitism did motivate some jackass baseball players or managers given the state of the country and the world at that time, the fact that major league baseball barred Black players at that time, and the sick abuse that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and others suffered when they did enter the majors less than a decade later.

It’s an interesting theory and question, but I can’t say it gets me all that exercised from this distance.   Call me jaded, but I just kind of always assumed (to the extent I ever thought about it) that in 1938 your average MLB player wasn’t a big fan of the Jews.

Really, the best part of the article is this quote from Greenberg:

“if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler”

There you have it.

An interesting aside for you baseball geeks is that this analysis is taking place now because of a site called Retrosheet that is simply mind-boggling. It has game-by-game box scores and stats going back basically forever. In addition to “serious” research, it is the ultimate resource when you’re reminiscing about some years-ago ball game, and say “remember that game when…” Well, it’s there.

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