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Happy 68th birthday, Hank Greenberg's glorious return

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

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Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg was in some ways hounded into military service during World War II. Greenberg, who was assigned a low "draft number" and thus was likely soon to be conscripted, repeatedly told the press in 1941 that he wouldn't seek deferment and would willingly serve if called upon. The questions persisted, though, and the implication was that Greenberg at best thought himself above the fray or, at worst, lacked a measure of personal courage. Absurd and unfair on both counts, it should go without saying.

The coverage of Greenberg's uncertain straits took an even uglier turn once he failed his army physical because of his flat feet. Frustrated, Greenberg insisted on another physical and was, the second time around, declared fit for service. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on May 1, 1941.

In the span of a few months, the whip-smart and hard-working Greenberg ascended to the rank of sergeant before being discharged. Mere days after that discharge, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Greenberg voluntarily re-enlisted, that time in the Air Force ...

(Image: BaseballInWartime.com)

Initially, he found himself far from the front lines -- like so many of the ballplayers who would follow him into military service -- but Greenberg requested a transfer to somewhere -- anywhere -- that would allow him to make more of a difference. Shortly thereafter, Captain Greenberg was flying B-29-bomber missions over the Himalayas. Some four years and four battle stars later and at least that many scrapes with death, Greenberg returned to the States.

And that brings us to July 1, 1945 -- the date of Greenberg's triumphant return to Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Batting fourth and playing left field, Greenberg saw major-league game action for the first time since May 6, 1941, when he clouted a pair of homers against the Yankees.

It was a doubleheader against the lowly Athletics, and Greenberg's Tigers entered the day with a slim 1 1/2-game lead over the Yankees. Greenberg began the day 0 for 3 with a walk. But in the eighth, using Doc Cramer's bat, he turned on a Charlie Gassaway fastball and hit what the UP described as "a whistling liner into the lower left field stands ..." -- a smash that traveled, in the words of the great Red Smith, "on a line as flat as old beer."

It was the 250th homer of Greenberg's career, and neither the 249 that preceded it nor the 81 that would follow it were as important, at least in a human sense. Here's how Greenberg biographer John Rosengren, in his book Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes, described the scene:

Amen to that -- all of that.

As you would expect, Greenberg's improbable homer led to some white-hot prose. Take it away, Joe Reichler of the AP ...

That, friends, is use of the word "cynosure," and that, friends, is one sentence.

Further dramatics followed. On the final day of the regular season, a Greenberg grand slam cinched the pennant for the Tigers, and then he went on to hit two homers and three doubles in the seven-game triumph over the Cubs in the World Series.

In a real way, though, Greenberg -- the Jewish kid from the Bronx who helped bring down Hitler -- never hit a bigger one than he did on July 1, 1945.

(Wink of CBS eye: The wondrous SABR and its many resources)

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