Tigers Legend Helped Build Indians of the 1950s
By Vince Guerrieri
He was the original Hammerin’ Hank. In the less enlightened time when he played, he was also known as the Hebrew Hammer.
But after a lengthy and successful career – almost exclusively with the Detroit Tigers – Hank Greenberg came to Cleveland and left his mark on the Indians.
After the 1947 season – the only one he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates – Greenberg’s playing career ended. He retired with a career .313 batting average and 331 home runs – a number which could have vastly increased had Greenberg not lost the bulk of four seasons to service in the Army Air Forces in World War II.
In 1948, Greenberg became the Indians’ director of the farm system. A year later, he was named the team’s general manager – the first Jewish executive in Major League Baseball. When Veeck sold the team to pay off a divorce in 1949, Greenberg became the face of the front office.
Greenberg experienced no shortage of anti-Semitic prejudice during his playing career, and as the Indians general manager, he was able to exploit other teams’ prejudices. He said that baseball executives were imbeciles for not signing black ballplayers. The Tribe, which had added Larry Doby in 1947 as the first black ballplayer in the American League and ageless Negro League wonder Satchel Paige a year later, became the most integrated team in the American League. The Indians, under Greenberg’s watch, also started drafting in Latin America, including future batting title winner Bobby Avila.
In America, it was Greenberg who signed – and then famously turned down a $1 million offer for – Herb Score. Greenberg tried to develop the best farm system in the majors, and his other successes included Rocky Colavito.
But Greenberg had some misfires as well. He was the one who fired fan favorite Lou Boudreau as manager, drawing lots of ire. He also dealt Minnie Minoso to the White Sox, where he became a key part of their success in the 1950s with former Tribe manager Al Lopez – who left Cleveland after a salary dispute with Greenberg.
In the 1950s in Cleveland, Greenberg decided that pitching changes slowed down the time of the game, and started the wonderfully odd tradition of having pitchers chauffeured to the mound from the outfield in a car. Golf carts were later used, mostly with big helmets as roofs, before the tradition died out in the 1980s. Greenberg later tried to use the car – a Nash Rambler – to sweeten a contract deal with Bob Lemon. “It’s only got 100 miles on it,” he said.
Greenberg was also an advocate of interleague play in the 1950s – which was adopted by the major leagues in 1997.
Greenberg ended up being fired as the Indians general manager in 1957. The Indians at the time were mired in mediocrity, and Greenberg, who was also a minority owner of the team, was one of the people pushing for a move to Minneapolis. In 1959, Greenberg declared baseball dead in Cleveland.
There were also rumors that Houston was interested in the Indians. Both cities ended up being sated by Major League Baseball in the 1960s: Houston would get the expansion Colt .45s (later the Astros after their new stadium), and the Twin Cities would get the Washington Senators, who would be replaced by an expansion team of the same name.
Greenberg’s replacement was a man whose name still sends shivers up the spine of any right-thinking Tribe fan: Frank “Trader” Lane.
Greenberg, along with his friend Veeck, tried to buy the American League expansion team in Los Angeles, but were denied by the owners. When Veeck bought the White Sox in the 1970s, Greenberg was a minority shareholder.
Hank Greenberg died in 1986, having spent most of his post-baseball career as a businessman. But he helped lay the foundation for the great Indians teams of the 1950s – and then tried to usher the Tribe out of town.
Photo: Cleveland Press Archive