In 1938, when Hank Greenberg hit his 58th home run, his mother was so excited she promised to make him 61 baseball-shaped gefilte fish portions if he broke Babe Ruth's record, set in 1927. There were five games left in the Tigers' season, but Hammerin' Hank never got the gefilte fish. He didn't hit another homer that year. Now he's 71 years old and lives in Beverly Hills, and his biggest game is the stock market. But those five days in 1938 are as vivid as any in his life.
Greenberg's assault on Ruth's record began in earnest just after the All-Star break. He refused to play in that game, although he'd been selected, because the year before he'd traveled all night on a train from Detroit to Washington for the All-Star Game and ended up sitting it out on the bench autographing baseballs. American League Manager Joe McCarthy of the Yankees played only his own first baseman, Lou Gehrig. So Greenberg spent the three-day '38 break working on his hitting with semi-pro pitchers. "I paid them 10, 20 bucks to pitch all day to me," he says.
Greenberg's hitting picked up right away. He hit four consecutive homers on July 26 and 27 against the Senators, giving him 33. "I read in the papers that I was ahead of Ruth," he says. "From then on I just aimed for the fences."
Greenberg worried about fading. "In '35 I had 30 on August 3, but got only six more the rest of the year," he says. Ruth's tremendous 17-homer September in his record season loomed formidably before his challenger. Greenberg came into September with 46 in '38, needing a very tough 14 to tie.
He hit his 55th and 56th on Sept. 23 off Cleveland's Earl Whitehill, who also had given up a homer to Ruth in 1927. His 57th, three games later, was his only inside-the-park home run. It had looked like a routine single until it bounded away from Browns Centerfielder Mel Almada in Briggs Stadium. Greenberg hesitated as he rounded third. The shortstop rifled in the relay. Greenberg and the ball arrived at the plate together, and the umpire called him safe. Many people thought Greenberg was out, including Hank himself. "The ump might have gotten a little carried away with all the excitement," he says now. His next time up, he hit a bona fide homer, the ball going over the centerfield fence.
In the fifth game before the season's end, Greenberg didn't get a hit; indeed, he got precious few pitches he could swing at. In the sixth inning he walked on four pitches; after the fourth, he remained at the plate hoping the ump would reconsider. "It was one of the few times that a batter would have welcomed a mistake by the umpire," said The Detroit News. "The mistake did not develop." By the eighth, Greenberg was swinging at anything. He lofted a ball to the leftfield roof, but it was foul by 10 feet. He eventually struck out.
In the next game the Browns' Bobo Newsom held Greenberg to a single. But Hank thought he was in good shape for the year's final three-game series in Cleveland. The Indians played all but their Sunday, night and holiday games in tiny League Park, which had a 290-foot rightfield porch. Greenberg, a righthanded pull-hitter, figured he'd have no trouble poking a couple to the opposite field because everyone was pitching him outside. But Cleveland decided to exploit Greenberg's run at the record, and rescheduled a Friday game to make it part of a Sunday doubleheader in vast Municipal Stadium, taking away his advantage.
He went hitless in League Park on Saturday, but still could surpass Ruth. He'd hit two homers in a game 11 times that year, still a record. In the first game on Sunday Greenberg ran into another record-chaser, 19-year-old Bob Feller and his fastball. Feller struck out 18 for a major league mark. Greenberg did double off the fence 450 feet out in left center, a homer almost anywhere else.
The long shadows of autumn were closing in when Greenberg came to bat in the final game on Sunday. He hit three singles, and then time ran out. The game was called because of darkness after the seventh. "I'm sorry, Hank, this is as far as I can go," said Umpire Cal Hubbard. "That's all right," replied Greenberg. "This is as far as I can go, too!"
Now Greenberg says, "It's just as well. There was no way I could have eaten all that gefilte fish."