5. Hank Greenberg
Hank Greenberg will be forever remembered in Tigers history. His number is emblazoned on the brick wall beyond the fence at Comerica Park, alongside the names and numbers of many other Tiger greats. Greenberg was easily one of the greatest right-handed power hitters of all time, and could have been better.
From the time he broke in to the big leagues, Greenberg was a force in the middle of the Tigers' batting order. At age 22, he took over as the starting first baseman and knocked in 87 runs in just 117 games played. The next season, 1934, Greenberg belted 63 doubles, a league high, along with 26 home runs and 139 RBI. He finished sixth in the MVP voting and led the Tigers to an American League pennant.
The 1935 season saw the Tigers again claim the AL crown, and Greenberg was the driving force. His added maturity saw many of those doubles become home runs. He led the league with 36 round-trippers to go along with an amazing 170 RBI. The Tigers bested the Cubs in six games to win the World Series, but Greenberg broke his hand in Game Two.
The 1936 season was a lost one for Greenberg; just 12 games into the year, he broke his wrist and missed the remainder of the season. He had already knocked in 16 runs in those 12 games. It was the first time Greenberg would miss significant time in his career, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The next four seasons showed the kind of player Greenberg was. From 1937 through 1940, He averaged 43 home runs and 147 RBI. He led the league in runs scored in 1938 with 144, the same year he belted 58 home runs—just two shy of Babe Ruth’s major league record.
He drove in 183 runs in 1937 to lead the league. During that stretch, he never slugged below .600 and never hit below .312. After Rudy York took over at first base in 1940, Greenberg moved to left field and responded by winning his second MVP award, becoming the first player to win the award at two different positions.
Like many ballplayers during World War II, Greenberg was drafted into service. He missed the vast majority of the 1941 season upon being drafted, but was discharged on Dec. 5, 1941 following a law that called for the release of men over the age of 28.
Upon the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Greenberg immediately re-enlisted and served through most of the 1945 season. He was discharged as a Captain with the 20th Bomber Command and earned four battle stars and Presidential Unit Citation. During his service time, Greenberg missed almost four full seasons.
Upon being discharged from the service in 1945, Greenberg rejoined the Tigers in the middle of the season. Four years away from the game didn’t seem to matter much to Hammerin’ Hank, as despite playing in only 78 games, he still hit better than .300 and finished 13th in MVP voting. Rejuvenated by Greenberg’s return, the Tigers went on to capture the AL crown and took care of the Cubs again in the World Series.
Greenberg played his final year in Detroit in 1946. For the first time in his career, except the 1941 season when he played only 19 games, Greenberg hit below .300, finishing at .277.
Despite the lower average, he still led the league in home runs and RBI, totalling 44 and 127, respectively. Following the season, Greenberg was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $75,000 cash.
Greenberg played just one year for the Pirates, belting 25 home runs in 125 games. He became the first player to ever hit at least 25 homers in a season in each league.
Greenberg played 12 seasons in the major leagues, but only seven times did he amass at least 500 at-bats. While his career numbers don’t scream out at you, when you consider that he missed so much time, his 313 home runs and almost 1,300 RBI look much better.
In his seven full campaigns, he averaged 40 home runs per season and 147 RBI. He was a five time All-Star, he won two MVP awards, finishing third on two other occasions. He led the Tigers to four AL pennants and two World Series wins.
Greenberg will perhaps always be remembered as the greatest Jewish ballplayer of all time. He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1956.