Hank Greenberg played his last game for the Detroit Tigers in 1946. But, to this day, his presence looms large in franchise history. Along with five other Tiger greats, a 13-foot statue of Greenberg towers above the brick wall beyond the outfield at Comerica Park.
For two current Tigers, being part of the same organization as a legend like Greenberg carries special meaning. That’s because they have more in common with Greenberg than the iconic Old English D they wear on their heads and on their chests.
Brad Ausmus and Ian Kinsler each grew up with a Jewish parent. Ausmus’ late mother was Jewish, and Kinsler’s father is Jewish. Neither Ausmus nor Kinsler was raised as a practicing Jew, but both embrace what Judaism has meant to their respective families.
“We celebrated holidays,” Kinsler said. “We celebrated Chanukah; we celebrated Passover with my dad’s side of the family. His side of the family is all Jewish and they all live in New York. Whenever you’re back east, it’s that environment, that culture.”
When Kinsler was traded to the Tigers in November of 2013, his father had a special request involving Hank Greenberg, who is known as one of the greatest Jewish baseball players of all time.
“He asked me to see if I could get No. 5 because I wore No. 5 in Texas. He said you should probably ask the Greenberg family, and I said that’s not happening, Dad.” Kinsler wears No. 3.
Feeling The Kinship
Like Kinsler, Brad Ausmus’ first season with the Tigers was in 2014. His only previous managerial experience came a year earlier with Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic.
“I was actually not raised Jewish,” Ausmus said. “I didn’t go to synagogue; I didn’t go to church either. I just celebrated the major holidays from both sides. I got the best of both worlds. I got Chanukah; I got Christmas, and I spent some Jewish holidays with my mother’s side of the family — Yom Kippur, Passover.”
Ausmus, who was born in Connecticut, says his strongest connection to his mother’s family was through his grandfather’s love for baseball.
“He was a huge Boston Braves fan and then a Boston Red Sox fan,” Ausmus said. “They lived outside Boston in Brookline, Mass., and I used to go up and visit. We always talked baseball, talked about the Red Sox, and he would drop my mom and I off at Fenway Park and we would watch the Red Sox play.”
During his 18-year playing career in the major leagues, which included three seasons with the Tigers, Ausmus had Jewish fans approach him because, in a way, they identified with him.
“At first, I didn’t really think about,” Ausmus said. “At some point, I had a young Jewish boy tell me I was his favorite player because I was Jewish and he was Jewish, so, I think, from then on, I kind of embraced it. If this gives kids a reason to smile or a reason to watch baseball or a reason to enjoy the sport, then great.”
Since he was hired as manager of the Tigers, Ausmus has experienced more of the same. And sometimes, things get lost in translation.
“One thing that happens a lot is people come up and speak Hebrew or Yiddish to me, and I have no idea what they’re saying,” he said. “A lot of times it takes me a second to understand what they’re even trying to say. And that happens frequently.”
In 1934, with the Tigers in the middle of a pennant race, Hank Greenberg made the difficult decision not to play on Yom Kippur. It was a decision Greenberg agonized over, even discussing it with his rabbi. Without the future Hall of Famer, the Tigers lost to the Yankees on Yom Kippur. The Tigers went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Both Kinsler and Ausmus have tremendous respect for the way Greenberg handled the situation.
“He was dealing with a lot more than I’m dealing with now as far as religious beliefs and what Jewish-Americans were allowed to be a part of, or how they were held in mind to other people,” Kinsler said.
“I’m sure he toiled with it because it’s not an easy decision,” Ausmus said. “Every person has to make those types of choices in their lives when it comes to their faith and their job.”
Greenberg’s sacrifices went beyond his religion. In 1940, Greenberg became the first American League player to register for the military draft. He served for almost four years, the longest of any major league player. And he did it in the prime of his baseball career.
“He was his own man,” Kinsler said. “He did so many special things outside of baseball as far as protecting the country and doing things that players now may not understand or don’t have to think about going through.”
While Kinsler and Ausmus never got to see Greenberg play, they both help to carry on his legacy every time they put on a Tigers uniform. Seventy years after Hang Greenberg’s final game with the Tigers, a connection to Judaism is still woven through the fabric of the franchise.
“I think it’s a source of pride,” Ausmus said. “Hank was one of the greatest players to ever walk the planet, a Hall of Famer and a Detroit Tiger.”
Justin White Special to the Jewish News