April 21, 1948
The last few months have been eventful for long-time big leaguer Hank Greenberg.
The Cleveland Indians spent the majority of the spring trying to determine what capacity Hammering Hank would serve with the ball club. He entered Spring Training as a potential candidate to fill one of the vacancies on the roster. As the spring progressed, the need for him to play the field appeared to be less and less the focus of the team.
With a new title and a new emphasis on working at the higher levels of the organization, has the playing career of the legendary Greenberg come to an end?
At the end of March, after a series of conversations with owner Bill Veeck, Greenberg was awarded the role of the second vice president of the Indians. The Indians’ second largest stockholder was going to focus his energies on transitioning to a front office role for the team. The job presumably would require a lot of adjustment for Greenberg, who has spent the last 13 years on the diamond as one of the bigger stars of the game. He will spend much of his time learning the governing rules and by-laws of both the major and minor leagues.
A new title did not prevent Greenberg from suiting up throughout the spring camp in preparation for a potential role on the field with the ball club for the 1948 season, either in the outfield, where he spent parts of three seasons, or at first base, where he had spent parts of nine years and each of the last two. Greenberg and the team continued to stress that he would be more than ready to take over at first base if Eddie Robinson faltered or the team dealt with sudden injuries that would require his presence.
A good showing in Spring Training by the club took some of the pressure off of having to rely on Greenberg to contribute on the field as a player, but knowing his experience in the game and with a clear need for coaching on the field, the Indians threw Greenberg’s hat into the mix as a potential option as a first base coach as well.
Greenberg has been a student of the game throughout his illustrious career, coaching up several young ball players and providing sound veteran advice to those willing to listen. Throughout the spring, Greenberg has shared his opinion on several members of the Tribe, including Pat Seerey, and is prone to tell stories of other ball players he has helped over the course of his career and various career tidbits that could be useful to a young player trying to find his place in the national pastime.
Cleveland had a hole to fill in the coaching staff after Oscar Melillo, the team’s former third base coach, was assigned to a scouting position in the Midwest. Last season’s first base coach, Bill McKechnie, will move over to the third base coaching box this season.
Even after the club announced on April 19 that long-time pitcher and new roving pitching coach Mel Harder would start the season as their first base coach, there still is some speculation that Greenberg might fill in as well until a new full-time option is brought on board.
Even with new roles assigned within the organization, Greenberg continued to suit up on the field and actively contributed through the spring due to injuries to Robinson and Elbie Fletcher. On April 14, he drove in three runs with a pair of singles in the exhibition win over the New York Giants.
Replacing Robinson for every inning in each game over a three-day span took a toll, as on April 15, Greenberg was held out of the lineup against the Giants after developing a sore back.
All the while, with new responsibilities and a variety of potential landing spots within the organization, Greenberg and the team continued to stress that he would be more than ready to take over at first base if Robinson faltered or the team was dealt sudden injuries that would require his presence, just as happened this spring.
If Greenberg never suits up again as a player with the Indians, it would spell the end of a remarkable career of one of the more prolific sluggers of the 1930s and early 1940s.
Hank spent parts of 12 seasons with the rival Detroit Tigers, where he was twice named Most Valuable Player. He was recognized five different times as an American League All-Star, including the wartime-cancelled 1945 exhibition.
In his second full season in the Majors, he led all of baseball with 63 doubles. He followed that by tying Jimmie Foxx for the 1935 lead in home runs with 36, and his 170 RBI were 40 more than the next highest output, earning him the first of his two MVP awards. Two years later, he amassed 183 RBI, the third-highest total in the history of the game, trailing just Hack Wilson’s 191 in 1930 and Lou Gehrig’s 184 the next season.
In 1941, like so many other players in the game of baseball at the time, Greenberg was drafted and joined the Army, missing parts of the 1941 and 1945 seasons and all of the 1942-1944 seasons while serving during World War II. He was briefly discharged in December 1941 but re-enlisted at the end of the next month, serving until his discharge in June 1945. The length of his commitment to the country was just short of four years.
He played one partial season and one more full season in Detroit after his return before spending last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Even though his overall offensive production was down compared to his other full bodies of work, he still led the National League in walks.
One way or the other, Greenberg will be contributing to the Indians organization throughout the 1948 season. Whether his most significant contributions occur on the field, on the road or from behind a desk, remain to be seen.
Photo: Cleveland Press/Cleveland Memory Project