Hank Greenberg was baseball’s first major star lost to World War II. The slugger lost over four prime seasons to military duty. When he returned in 1945, Greenberg played as though he never left. On the final day of the regular season, he clinched the American League Pennant with a dramatic grand slam in St. Louis.
Originally, the draft board disqualified Hank Greenberg for having flat feet. Greenberg feared unwarranted public outcry that he received preferential treatment or bribed the doctors. A second exam cleared him for duty and he became the first player drafted into the armed forces.
After appearing in 19 games in 1941, Greenberg went to serve. Since he was over 28, the army discharged him on December 5, 1941. Two days later, Pearl Harbor convinced Greenberg to reenlist. The Tiger did not return to baseball until 1945. On July 1, he homered in his first game back.
The Tigers were in the midst of a pennant race. Detroit just missed the World Series in 1944 finishing one game behind the Browns. Greenberg literally provided the difference between first and second place. Although they went just 51-41 after his return, the slugger won the pennant with a clutch grand slam.
On the final day of the regular season, St Louis was out of the race and looked to play spoiler. Virgil Trucks started for the Tigers against Nels Potter for the Browns. Potter went the distance while Trucks lasted 5.1 innings. Hal Newhouser relieved and received his 25th victory of 1945 while Al Benton recorded his third save of the campaign.
For a time, it appeared Newhouser would receive the loss. Detroit led 2-1 when he entered the game, but the lefty surrendered two runs and the Browns led 3-2 in the ninth. Greenberg approached the plate as the sun set. The umpire wanted to call the game because of darkness, but Greenberg claimed he could see “just fine.” With the bases loaded, he hit the next pitch into the stands for a grand slam. The Tigers did not relinquish the lead and won 6-3.
Detroit went on to win the 1945 World Series in seven games over the Cubs. Greenberg hit .304 with two home runs and seven RBI in the Fall Classic. For the season, he hit .311 with 13 long balls, 60 RBI and a .948 OPS in 78 games. Greenberg played just two more seasons before retiring in 1947.
The Tigers lost Hank Greenberg for 4 ½ years to World War II. When he returned, the older Greenberg had not missed a beat. He hit over .300 and hit the pennant-clinching grand slam. Had Greenberg played baseball, the Tigers might have won the pennant in 1944 as well.