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Jim Murray

Upstaged but Never Outplayed

September 09, 1986|JIM MURRAY

I don't know where he is, or even, for that matter, who he is, but I know that Mr. Dorfman, God bless him, has got to be a sad man today.

Mr. Dorfman and I have never met, but I truly feel I know him well. You see, we have a mutual friend, the lively and inventive Jerry Izenberg, a colleague who writes for the Newark Star-Ledger and other Eastern newspapers.

From the time I met him, Jerry has kept me apprised of the goings-on in the world of Mr. Dorfman and his views on same, particularly in the world of sport.

Mr. Dorfman, you see, to hear Izenberg tell it, was an expert on the Talmud and privy to its overview of the world of sports as we know it.

Jerry quoted Mr. Dorfman frequently on the Talmudic assessment of things athletic. Once, for instance, when we were in a press box and a ballplayer broke for second base on an aborted double steal and wound up as the second runner on one base, Jerry was ready with his Talmudic assessment. "The Talmud frowns on stealing in general, but it categorically forbids stealing an occupied base," he explained.

The Talmud according to Mr. Dorfman would probably not have advised pitching to Jack Clark in last year's playoff, Izenberg said, and, once, when we were flying to a sporting event in Africa--Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire--by way of Iceland, Izenberg noted: "The Talmud specifically warns against going to Africa by way of Iceland. The Talmud did not even approve of the route of the Titanic. The Talmud says you should never pass icebergs on the way from New York to the Congo."

Mr. Dorfman would be sad today for a melancholy reason: His favorite ballplayer died the other day.

You see, you know a great deal about Mr. Dorfman when you realize his favorite baseball team of all time was the Detroit Tigers.

Now, this is a little bit unusual, in that Detroit is a long way from New Jersey, where Mr. Dorfman pursued his scholarly studies, but Mr. Dorfman was well able to control his enthusiasm for and support of the more nearby teams, the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers. It's almost safe to say he despised them.

Look at it this way: They didn't sign Henry Benjamin Greenberg to play for them, did they? Never mind any la-dee-da explanations that they already had Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or Bill Terry or even Harry (the Horse) Danning, they did not sign the greatest player in the history of the Bronx, New York.

The Detroit Tigers did and from that day on, Mr. Dorfman never wavered in his affection for and loyalty to the Detroit Tigers. They let Greenberg play for them, didn't they? A righteous group.

Mr. Dorfman is not a man whose affections are lightly given. The only other athletic team that earned his undying gratitude and loyalty were the Chicago Bears. They signed Sid Luckman at quarterback. A Columbia man. You think the lordly New York Giants would ever do that? Ptooey!

Mr. Dorfman was a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan. A man, after all, has to have his priorities straight.

So, when Hank Greenberg died here the other day at 75, it must have been an occasion of great sorrow to Mr. Dorfman. As Norm Crosby would say, the end of an aura.

Mr. Dorfman was not wrong. Hank Greenberg was one of the greatest ever to play the game. Four times he won or tied for the home run championship. And he played during the times of Ruth, Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. In fact, Stan Musial. Four times he led the game in runs batted in. He was one of the most natural sluggers who ever lived. Only four men put up a better slugging average than he did--and they were the registered giants of the game--Ruth, Williams, Gehrig and Foxx.

Only two men, Ruth and Roger Maris, hit more homers in a season than he did. Only two, Gehrig and Hack Wilson, batted in more runs in a single season than he did. Greenberg hit 58 homers in 1938 and drove in 183 runs in 1937. He spent five years in the Army Air Corps at the height of his career. He led the Detroit Tigers to four pennants even in the days when the New York Yankees had, putatively, the greatest baseball teams of all time.

Yet it was the great sadness of Hank Greenberg's career that he did not play in New York. There, he would have had millions of Mr. Dorfmans. There, he would have been the toast of Broadway. There, he belonged. He was a landsman.

He was a victim of prejudice throughout his career. But not the kind you might expect.

The prejudice against Hank Greenberg was not religious. It was emotional. It was directed equally at the Gentile, Jimmy Foxx, the year he hit 58 home runs.

Nobody wanted to see Babe Ruth's single-season home run record broken. And Hank Greenberg was the one most likely to do it. The year he hit 58, there was still a week left in the season when he got No. 58. Greenberg seldom saw a pitch that week that wasn't in the dirt--or in his ear.

Actually, Hank Greenberg was as lovable and gregarious as Babe Ruth ever was. Hank was a man almost without enemies. He was a natural. Nine times he batted over .300, and twice he led the league in doubles. In later life, he became a gifted tennis player who could beat athletes one-third his age without moving much more than a foot either way from where he served.

But he was, on balance, a benighted star. He played in the wrong place, at the wrong time. He got upstaged by a war, by geography, by Babe Ruth.

But he always had Mr. Dorfman. And his name was legion. Scholar, patriot, superstar, Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish player, so far as is known since religious statistics weren't kept, to make the Hall of Fame. Whatever the Talmud would have to say about him--or the Sporting News--Mr. Dorfman had the word for him. A mensch .

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