This article was written by John Rosengren
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in Chicago (2015)
Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” by John Rosengren.
Through five games of the 1945 World Series, the Detroit Tigers held a three games to two lead over the Chicago Cubs. This Fall Classic was, as Baseball Magazine’s Clifford Bloodgood called it, “A comedy of errors—loosely played but good entertainment.” The comedy continued in Game Six, played at Wrigley Field, though not everyone would find humor in the errors.
A year previously, Captain Hank Greenberg of the U.S. Army had been stationed in India, listening to the Series on the radio and figuring he would never play in another one himself. His first three had not been fully satisfying. In 1934, despite putting up decent numbers, he had been criticized for failing to come through in the clutch when the Tigers lost to the Cardinals; Dizzy Dean had mocked him with three strikeouts in Game Seven. The next year, he had injured his wrist and been forced to the sidelines of the team’s victory. In 1940, his last full season, he had endured another disappointing seven-game defeat, this time at the hands of Cincinnati.
Now, the Tigers left fielder had another chance—not only to play, but also to set right his World Series record. It would be his last chance.
In the bottom of the sixth inning of Game Six, Greenberg chased Mickey Livingston’s pop-up blowing back toward the infield. He managed to get his glove on it, but couldn’t make the catch. The ball fell for a double (the official scorers charitably awarded Livingston a hit), and Livingston later scored to put the Cubs up 5–1.
In the seventh, Greenberg scored, as did teammate Doc Cramer, to trim the Cubs’ lead to 5–3. The score would have been 5–4 if not for the “Hostetler Flop.” Chuck Hostetler, the Tigers’s fastest runner despite being 42 years old, had rounded third on Cramer’s single, hell-bent on home, when his toe caught the turf. He stumbled, lurched forward several strides windmilling his arms, then belly-flopped into no man’s land. Instead of scoring, he was tagged out.
The Cubs increased their lead by two in the bottom half of the seventh, but the Tigers rallied again in the eighth, pulling within a run at 7–6. The day before, Hank Greenberg had pledged to homer in Game Six. Now he faced gray-haired lefthander Ray Prim with two outs and nobody on. Greenberg worked the count to 3–2 then clubbed the ball. Despite a strong wind blowing in, Greenberg’s clout soared over the left-field ivy and tied the game. The Tiger players jumped to their feet, cheered and danced spontaneously. “That’s it!” Tiger manager Steve O’Neill yelled from the third base coach’s box. “That’s the payoff.” They were certain victory and the championship was theirs.
That is, until Hank Borowy came on in relief and closed the door. With the score tied 7–7, the game headed into extra innings. In the bottom of the twelfth, with shadows cramping visibility, Chicago’s Stan Hack batted with pinch-runner Bill Schuster on first and two outs. Hack smacked a routine single to left. Greenberg moved in to field it, wanting to nip the runner at third to finish off the Cubs. He dropped to his right knee to play the bounce, but the ball struck a sprinkler head and hopped over his left shoulder. Greenberg wheeled and chased the ball to the wall, but Schuster scored standing up. The three official scorers, led by Harry Salsinger of the Detroit News, held Greenberg responsible for the loss: E-7.
While the Wrigley Field crowd whooped and hollered, Greenberg made the long, lonely walk from left field to the Tigers clubhouse entrance on the first-base side with his head down, growing angrier by the step. Instead of celebrating a World Series victory—once again the Tigers had squandered a three-two series lead—he lamented an extra-inning loss pinned on him, the bum. He stomped into the clubhouse, where his teammates gave him a wide berth. When a reporter asked, “What happened to you on that play, Hank?” Greenberg snapped, “What happened to me? What happened to you?! Did you see the game?”
Always sensitive to criticism about his limitations in the field, Greenberg was incensed that the scorers had charged him with an error on a ball he didn’t think he had a legitimate chance to field. It had bounced over his shoulder! He never touched it. Still, he was down on himself that he had let it get by.
Greenberg’s teammates agreed that he had been unfairly accused of misplaying the ball. “How in the hell could anyone give an error on such a play?” O’Neill demanded.
The second-guessing extended beyond the Tigers clubhouse. Members of the press argued over the call back at the Palmer House, their Chicago headquarters for the Series. Some of them finally wore down Salsinger and the other two scorers, who reversed their decision—the first time that had ever happened in the World Series—and awarded Hack a double and an RBI. Greenberg was off the hook but not pleased. He had hit his second home run of the Series, as predicted, but that no longer mattered. The Tigers had lost. The scorers wouldn’t change that fact.
Greenberg wouldn’t have to mope for long. Two days later, with Greenberg drawing two walks and adding a sacrifice fly and sacrifice bunt, the Tigers won Game Seven 9–3 and were once again World Champions.
JOHN ROSENGREN is the award-winning author of eight books, including “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.” You can find him at www.johnrosengren.net.