Did Anti-Semitism Prevent Hank Greenberg from Breaking Babe Ruth’s Home Run Record?

In this recent New York Times article, Howard Megdal revives the longstanding claim that anti-Semites on opposing teams tried to prevent Jewish Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg from breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1938 because of anti-Semitism:

Evidence has finally been published that seems to resolve a 72-year-old mystery. When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish? …

Some members of Greenberg’s family and legions of his fans believed that anti-Semitic pitchers had walked Greenberg often to keep him from a fair shot at Ruth, who set the record in 1927….

Greenberg received many more walks as he chased Ruth in 1938 than he did in the rest of his career. Almost no other hitter going after the home run record had anything like Greenberg’s late-season spike in bases on balls. He had 119 walks to lead the A.L., the only time he did so, and they accounted for 17.5 percent of his 681 plate appearances.

But the way pitchers handled Greenberg early in the season was clearly different than the way they approached him as Ruth’s record came into view….

Over all, Greenberg walked in 15.9 percent of his plate appearances through the end of August 1938. In September, that rate jumped to 20.4 percent. His walk rate was 14.5 percent in 1937 and 15 percent in 1939.

Megdal points out that other hitters who threatened Ruth’s 1927 record of 60 HRs did not have a higher walk rate in September than earlier in the season. He concludes that opposing teams wanted to prevent Greenberg from breaking the record in 1938 because he was Jewish.

The idea that Greenberg was a victim of anti-Semitism in this instance is not implausible. Anti-Semitism was not uncommon in 1930s America, and Greenberg was a victim of anti-Semitic slurs on many occasions. Moreover, by September 1938, the American League pennant race was over (unfortunately, the New York Yankees had run away with their third straight pennant) and opposing teams risked very little by walking Greenberg a few extra times.

Nonetheless, Megdal’s case seems weak. The difference between Greenberg walking in 20.4% of his plate appearances in September and walking in 15.9% is just a handful of walks. It could easily have happened just by random chance. The difference between 119 walks in 1938 and Greenberg’s career record in this respect is also modest. Greenberg had both power and excellent plate discipline -a combination that routinely causes high walk rates. Overall, he had three seasons with over 100 walks and four others with 80 or more. He even led the National League in walks in 1947, the last season of his career when he was well past his prime.

Jack Marshall points out several other shortcomings in Megdal’s statistical analysis here. The bottom line is that Greenberg’s walk rate in 1938 could easily have been accounted for by a combination of random chance and his inherent attributes as a hitter.

It’s also worth noting Greenberg’s own comments on this issue in Lawrence Ritter’s classic book The Glory of their Times (pg. 317):

Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn’t break Ruth’s record was [that], because I was Jewish, the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me. That’s pure baloney. The fact of the matter is quite the opposite: so far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers. I remember one game Bill Dickey was catching for the Yankees, he was even telling me what was coming up. The reason I didn’t hit 60 or 61 homers is because I ran out of gas; it had nothing to do with being Jewish.

The American League was a relatively small world in 1938 (there were only eight teams). If opposing players were systematically trying to prevent Greenberg from breaking the record out of anti-Semitic motives, it seems likely that he would have heard about it.

Megdal dismisses Greenberg’s statements on the grounds that it would have been “out of character” for him to blame his failure to break the record on others. But Greenberg did not hesitate to point out the extensive anti-Semitism that he faced on other occasions, and also didn’t hesitate to blame it for bad outcomes when he thought it was warranted. In the very same interview with Ritter, he blamed anti-Semitism on the part of the owners for his decision not to try to become the owner of the Chicago White Sox in the 1960s.

In sum, it’s certainly possible that some opponents walked Greenberg because they didn’t want a Jewish player to break Ruth’s record. But Megdal fails to prove that it actually happened.

UPDATE: Commenter “Michigan & Trumbull” points out that Greenberg’s higher walk rate in September might well have been due to the fact that he had less protection in the lineup than he did earlier in the season. This further undercuts Megdal’s thesis.