In 1936, there was still time.
Kristalnacht was still two years away, and the Nazi empire had yet to reach its furthest expanses. Yes, the Jews were being persecuted, yes the Nuremburg laws had been passed and Jews were no longer citizens, and yes, the rest of the world at large seemed indifferent to Jewish plight, but merely being Jewish wasn’t a death sentence.
The Nazi persecutions were not an unknown to the outside world; by 1938 a conference had to be held to discuss what to do about the growing Jewish refugee problem. Thirty-two governments sent representatives, including the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom; of all of these, only one country agreed to take on Jewish refugees – Rafael Trujillo’s Dominican Republic.
In 1936, though, with the Evian conference two years away, there was still a sense, however delusional, that some veneer of a normal life could take place for Jews in Nazi-held territories. That year, the concern of Americans was not so much anti-Semitism (and indeed, with the likes of Father Coughlin on the radio, one could say that many Americans were anti-Semitic), as it was the Depression, and all that went with it.
Baseball was an escape from the Depression, and, as the 1936 season dawned, it was a Jewish player – Hank Greenberg – who was the reigning American League MVP.
No matter what, 1936 would have been an odd year for baseball – the first year since 1914 that Babe Ruth would not appear as a player in a major league uniform. Although the Black Sox scandal and deadball era were past, baseball would still need a superstar. It could have Lou Gehrig, who for so long played in Ruth’s shadow, but hit at least 30 home runs every year since 1929, or it could have Hank Greenberg, the Jew.
Greenberg’s Judaism was important enough to him to bring about his famous decision to sit out on Yom Kippur in 1934 – a move that might not have otherwise been so potentially controversial save for Yom Kippur’s mid-September timing. One wonders, as Greenberg sat in synagogue that year, how much he knew, and if word of the Nuremburg laws and intensifying persecutions had made their way to Michigan, whether or not he believed it.
The thing about the Holocaust that isn’t always made clear is that the Jewish population in Germany itself was so small that many ordinary Germans had no experience of Jews, so for them the minority remained only a distant concept. The worst crimes of the Holocaust would not be carried out in Germany; they were carried out in Warsaw and Lodz, Babi Yar and the Baltic. It might seem like a long reach from 1930s and 1940s Eastern Europe to Hank Greenberg, but it shouldn’t be: Greenberg’s parents were Romanian immigrants.
Although Greenberg wasn’t in danger of losing his United States citizenship, he was no stranger to anti-Semitism, even in a milder form: as Greenberg would later recall, “If you struck out, you weren’t just a bum, you were a Jewish bum.” It may be tempting to argue that when taunting, players and fans naturally gravitate to the opponent’s most apparent vulnerability, and in Greenberg’s case, this was his religion. The problem, however, is that 1930s America suffered from more than opportunistic anti-Semitism. While the American population may not have shared the Nazi viewpoint of Jews as rats trying to take over the world, universities, including the Ivies, still used a quota system to keep Jewish enrolment down, and America’s greatest folk hero at the time, Charles Lindbergh, was not shy about his views that Jews held too much influence in public sectors.
So in 1936, Hank Greenberg’s World Series win and MVP season the previous year did not absolve him of his great sin, which was that he happened to be born into a Jewish family. The anti-Semitic taunts and attitudes had disastrous consequences for Greenberg when, just 12 games into the season, the Senators’ Jake Powell crashed into Greenberg, breaking Greenberg’s wrist and ending his season*.
Powell was far from baseball’s most savory character – his comments about “beating n—— with a nightstick” provoked such a response that necessitated a reprimand, even while baseball still remained segregated – and he would meet a less-than-glorious end in a police station in 1948.
The injury to Greenberg, though season-ending, would not end his career, but the incident is more significant than that. Even though the probable knowledge that two years later pitchers would intentionally walk Greenberg to keep him from breaking Babe Ruth’s home record might, by some, be considered to be the bigger deal, the collision with Powell involved actual violence.
The line between teasing and taunting, and actual violence is often disturbingly thin. Blame mob mentality, blame human nature, blame an inherent need to “other” the outsider, but the pattern remains the same. In a prosperous world, deep-seeded prejudices remain hidden by a thin layer of decorum. The worse the situation, the more the veneer is eroded, until all that’s left is blatant hate.
The Nazis, who never hid their anti-Semitism, came to power at such an economically desperate time for Germany. In 1936, the dehumanization of the their Jewish minority was already well under way, and more than once the taunts turned to outright violence. There was still time that year for Jews to emigrate from Germany — indeed, this was the Nazis’ preference — but, for those in denial, for those who thought that their middle-class way of life could last forever, the window was closing fast.
In 1938, a series of pogroms took place over one night that became known as Kristalnacht. The synchronized vandalizing of Jewish synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses marked the shift from sporadic attacks to outright government-sponsored violence. Kristalnacht, it can be said, was the night the Holocaust began.
That year, Greenberg would hit his 58 home runs and years later, analysis would be done to show that Greenberg was walked at a greater rate than other batters later in the year, ostensibly an effort to keep him from breaking Babe Ruth’s record. That Babe Ruth’s record was involved has caused this incident to receive more attention, but this was not ultimately the most dangerous one Greenberg faced.
What if Powell hadn’t been such an unsavory character? As it is, there’s no record of Powell having ever been reprimanded for a collision that Greenberg would later opine could have been avoided. Was the violence acceptable because it was just a part of the game? Was it acceptable because the teams and the umpires and the fans believed it was inadvertent? Or was it acceptable because Greenberg was Jewish? What if Lou Gehrig had been the first baseman then, or Jimmie Foxx? Would it have been acceptable then?
There was never a Holocaust in America, but it would not have taken all that much to occur. After all, the United States did intern Japanese-Americans, and while they didn’t build gas chambers, the concentration camp still denies its internees one of their most vital needs for emotional health: their dignity. American students are taught that the country is a melting pot, where all are welcome, but they are not taught that the man who came up with the melting pot term — Henry Ford — was himself a virulent anti-Semite.
Greenberg was baseball’s first Jewish superstar, and it’s tempting to think or teach that once Greenberg played and won the World Series and the MVP, all the anti-Semitism in baseball, and elsewhere, would dissipate because, well, Greenberg was just as good as the rest of them, but history isn’t a fairy tale. Even after 1936, anti-Semitism still had yet to see its worst days.
*As an aside, that the broken wrist cost Greenberg the entire season so early on might, for those with an interest in such things, be interesting to compare to Albert Pujols’ broken wrist of 2011, and the advances sports medicine has been able to make in almost 80 years.