This Day in Baseball History: January 18th, 1947

One of the greatest misunderstandings in baseball history or just another salary dispute?

On January 18th, 1947:

The Detroit Tigers sold Hank Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates for $40,000.

After four years of service in World War II, Hank Greenberg returned to the Detroit Tigers in 1945. He would play two more seasons in a Tigers uniform, but the reason for his departure is one that lives on in baseball legend. Why would the Tigers sell one of their best players and future Hall of Famer?

That question has three answers, which may or may not intertwine. The answer that makes this moment one of misunderstanding and overreaction derives from a photo. Hank Greenberg had been commanded to play in an All-Star War Bond Game, but when he left for the game, he brought no equipment with him. In the search for a uniform for Greenberg to practice in, the Yankees could not find him a Detroit uniform, so they gave him a Yankees uniform instead. A photographer, then, got Greenberg to pose in the uniform during practice, but it wasn’t printed … yet. During the 1946-1947 off-season, Greenberg applied for the general manager position for Detroit, and he openly talked about his desires to be in a front office. The Tigers turned him down because they felt as though he did not have the qualifications, but Sporting News did a story on him anyway talking about his desires. Unfortunately, the picture from the War Bond Game was published in the story, and the Detroit owner failed to read the caption. Overreacting, he demanded Greenberg be traded, fearing Greenberg’s loyalties had shifted to the Yankees.

The second answer has a bit of the first. Greenberg did want to be in a front office position at the end of his playing days, but the Tigers weren’t so sure they wanted him in that position. They loved him hitting home runs, but they weren’t sure he was capable of being a general manager. When he applied and was rejected from the general manager’s position, they felt they needed to trade him.

The third answer is a common one when there’s a dispute between owner and player — money. Greenberg earned $60,000 in 1946, and he demanded $75,000 for 1947. The Detroit owner balked at the request, but Greenberg was adamant and threatened to retire. Refusing to have such a headache, Detroit sold him to Pittsburgh.

As I have and will state several times, history is complicated. Often, one searches for the one answer that simply and succintly answers the question. History isn’t so simple, and one of these answers isn’t likely to be the only part of the equation. Likely, all three had their parts, in what order no one is particularly sure. He may have asked for more money, and when he tried to become general manager and the owner saw the picture, the owner may have had it. Greenberg may have applied for the job, but when he was rejected, he may have demanded more money in revenge.

Overall, however, I believe the money probably had more to do with it. Just like today, teams do not like to pay for aging stars, and Greenberg was 36, although he had hit 44 home runs the previous season. Still, Greenberg was about to become the highest-paid player in history, and Detroit may not have wanted to pay him the money. As for the GM job, I think Greenberg could understand, and I don’t see why the Tigers would have sold him just for applying. As for the picture, are you telling me no one asked the owner why he was so upset and that no one else saw the caption and promptly showed it to the owner? I doubt that as well.

Regardless, after the trade, Greenberg expressed his wish to retire, but Pittsburgh gave him a salary in the $80,000-$100,000 range (no one knows for sure and there are disputing stories) to get him to reconsider. He did and joined the team. His biggest impact, other than getting Pittsburgh to bring in the fences in what is known as “Greenberg’s Gardens”, was helping Ralph Kiner. Kiner was a free swinger with a lot of power, and Greenberg taught him focus and discipline. Greenberg only hit 25 HR his final season, but Kiner would hit 51.

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