#Shortstops: Greenberg’s Full Service

Written by: Janey Murray

In the middle of a decorated Hall of Fame career, Hank Greenberg spent more than four years away from the game.

The Detroit Tigers great was one of many professional baseball players to serve in the United States military during World War II.

At the time he was drafted in May 1941, Greenberg had just begun his 10th season in the big leagues. He was coming off four straight All-Star selections and had already collected American League MVP Awards in 1935 and 1940. He and his Tigers had claimed one World Series title in 1935, in addition to appearing in two other Fall Classics in 1934 and 1940.

But in the prime of his career, the slugger had to resign his post as Detroit’s left fielder and take up a new one in the Army, reporting for duty at Fort Custer, Mich., on May 7, 1941.

“I’ve got to learn the rules of this game,” Greenberg told the Associated Press on his first day in the military, as he began to learn the tricks of his new trade. “You wouldn’t play baseball without knowing what hits and runs are, would you?”

Greenberg served at Fort Custer in the Fifth Division, Second Infantry Anti-Tank Company. Not long after he began his service, Congress passed a law preventing men over 28 years old from being drafted. As a result, the 30-year-old Greenberg was discharged on Dec. 5, 1941. But he wouldn’t remain away for long.

Two days later, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Feeling he still had a debt to pay to his country, Greenberg reenlisted, this time with the Army Air Forces.

“I’m going back in,” Greenberg told the Associated Press. “We are in trouble and there is only one thing to do – return to the service. I have not been called back. I am going back of my own accord.”

In his second stint in the Army, Greenberg served in locations across the United States and the world, including a period of time spent in the China-Burma-India Theater.

Among the artifacts in the Hall of Fame commemorating Greenberg’s military service is a military identification card, issued Dec. 18, 1944.

By that time, Greenberg had returned to the United States to continue his service with the Air Technical Service Command’s production division, based in Manhattan.

Greenberg was discharged from the military for good on June 14, 1945. And while many had speculated about whether his baseball career was already over, he came back as strong as ever, homering in his first game back on July 1, 1945 and going on to bat .311 for the season. He led the Tigers to another World Series title that October, as Detroit defeated the Chicago Cubs in seven games.

Greenberg went on to play two more full seasons, including his final year with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who purchased his contract from Detroit in January 1947. He remained in the game for years following his retirement, serving as general manager for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.

Greenberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

Janey Murray was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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