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Jan 1, 1911- “Hank”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK • Slugger Hank Greenberg was born to an orthodox Jewish family on this date in baseball history. He broke into the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 1930 at the age of 19.

Greenberg was a 2-time Most Valuable Player (MVP) and 5-time all-star, though he only played 9 full seasons. Henry Benjamin Greenberg, like many major leaguers, had some of his best years interrupted by military service in World War II. He missed 3 full seasons and parts of 2 others.

Greenberg was a fearsome hitter. He hit 58 home runs in 1938 – at the time only Babe Ruth had hit more (Jimmie Foxx hit 58 home runs in 1932). Greenberg’s 183 RBI in 1937 are eclipsed only by Hack Wilson‘s 191 in 1930 and Lou Gehrig’s 184 in 1931. Only a handful of players have a higher lifetime slugging percentage than Greenberg’s .605.

As a youth, Greenberg was an all-around athlete in New York City. He led James Monroe High School to the New York City basketball championship, but his favorite sport was baseball. The Yankees showed interest in the first baseman in 1929, but he decided the odds of cracking the lineup were pretty slim with another New York born slugger already a fixture at first – Lou Gehrig. Greenberg enrolled at New York University, but signed with the Detroit Tigers the following year.

Greenberg quit playing in 1948 to become farm director of the Cleveland Indians. He moved into the Indians front office as general manager and part-owner with Bill Veeck two years later. He became a part-owner of the Chicago White Sox with Veeck in 1959. Their timing couldn’t have been better. The Sox won the pennant for the first time in 40 years. Greenberg and Veeck sold their interests in the White Sox in 1961, and Greenberg went on to a successful career in private business.

He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956. Hank Greenberg died September 4, 1986 in Beverly Hills, California.

Contributing sources:
More on Hank Greenberg
Jewish Virtual Library

 

Dec 31, 1972-MORE THAN A BALLPLAYER

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO • Roberto Clemente was an outstanding baseball player. He was a better human being. He was on a plane bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua on this date – New Year’s Eve 1972. The plane crashed shortly after take-off from his native Puerto Rico. His body never found.

Clemente was a winner of Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He was the type of baseball player who came across once in a lifetime. Clemente was a 5-tool player; run, throw, catch, hit and hit for power. It may be more accurate to say Clemente was a 10-tool player because he did all those things with an entertaining flair. It was exciting to see him hit a triple, throw a baserunner out at 3rd from right field, even take a ferocious swing and miss.

On the field, Clemente finished with a .317 lifetime batting average, 1,406 runs scored, exactly 3,000 hits, 12 all-star appearance and 12 Gold Gloves. But he didn’t intend for the ’72 season to be his last. Nor would he expect helping organize an earthquake relief effort be his last act of generosity. But he had to get on that plane to make sure the supplies got to the people who really needed them.

His legacy lives on in the Roberto Clemente Award given each year to the MLB player who “best exemplifies baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to the team.”

Dec 30, 1935 – A STAR BORN

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK • One of the greatest pitchers of all-time was born on this date in 1935, Sanford Braun.

Sanford who?
Braun.
Never heard of him.

That’s because he’s better known as Sandy Koufax. Koufax was born to Evelyn and Jack Braun, but his parents divorced when he was a child, and his mother remarried Irving Koufax.

Koufax played baseball and basketball growing up. In fact, attended the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship. He impressed baseball scouts enough though that they offered him a contract in 1954.

Koufax’s major league baseball career was not long, eleven years (1955 to 1966). It took him a few seasons to harness his talent, but for a six year stretch he was as dominating a pitcher as there’s ever been.

From 1961 to 1966:

  • He won 129 games, losing just 47
  • His ERA was 2.76, lead the league 5 of those six year, 3 seasons his ERA was under 2.00
  • Lead the league in strikeouts 4 times, striking out more than 300 three times
  • Won 3 Cy Young awards

He ranks 19th in the major leagues in winning percentage (.655).

Arm trouble forced Koufax to retire at age 30. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972.

CONTRIBUTING SOURCES:
Sandy Koufax
Biography.com
Jewish Virtual Library

Dec 29, 1951 – THE BITHORN MYSTERY

EL MANTE, MEXICO • It was a mystery then. It’s a mystery today. A one-time rising star for the Chicago Cubs was shot and killed in El Mante (Ciudad, Mante in Spanish) Mexico on this date in 1951.

Thirty-five year old Hi Bithorn, a native of Puerto Rico, was playing in the Mexican Winter League trying to make a comeback when he was killed.

According to an article written by Jane Allen Quevedo for the Society of American Baseball Research, the Bithorn family believes Officer Cano’s motive for shooting Bithorn was because he wanted to steal his car.

According to several articles in The Chicago Tribune in the days after the shooting, Bithorn was broke and trying to sell a car for cash. El Mante policeman Ambrosio Castillo Cano asked Bithorn for the car’s registration papers. There was an altercation and Bithorn was shot in the stomach. Cano said Bithorn attacked him.

According to an article written by Jane Allen Quevedo for the Society of American Baseball Research, the Bithorn family believes Officer Cano’s motive for shooting Bithorn was because he wanted to steal his car.

For some unknown reason, Bithorn was driven to a hospital more than 80 miles away. He died enroute. Cano was charged with homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Bithorn was a shining star early in his career. He came up with the Chicago Cubs in 1942. He won 18 games in ’43, including a league leading 7 shutouts. It was the midst of World War II and Uncle Sam called. He missed the 1944 and ’45 seasons.

The luster Bithorn showed before entering the military wasn’t there when he got out in 1946. He bounced around the majors for a couple years, pitching two innings for the Chicago White Sox in 1947 until a sore arm put him out of action. He would never pitch in the major leagues again.

Bithorn was trying to make a comeback in the Mexican Winter League when he was killed. The largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico is named after Bithorn.

Contributing sources:
The Chicago Tribune
, January 1-5, 1952
Hi Bithorn stats

 

Dec 28, 1994-12 PLAYER DEAL

HOUSTON, TEXAS / SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA • The Houston Astros and San Diego Padres closed the deal on one of the biggest trades in baseball history on this date in 1994. Twelve players, 6 from each team, switched uniforms.

Among the big names involved, the Padres got third-baseman Ken Caminiti and outfielder Steve Finley. The Astros got outfielder Derek Bell and a young pitcher by the name of Pedro Martinez. More in a moment.

Unfortunately for Houston, the promising young Pedro Martinez they got from San Diego was Pedro A. Martinez, not Pedro J. Martinez.

The Padres got the better part of the deal. Caminiti had some solid years with the Astros, but his best years were in San Diego. The same for Steve Finley. His best years were after he left Houston.

The Astros got several productive years out of Derek Bell after getting him from San Diego. Unfortunately for Houston, the promising young Pedro Martinez they got from San Diego was Pedro A. Martinez, not Pedro J. Martinez.

Pedro J. is the Pedro Martinez who went on to win 219 games, 3 Cy Young awards, appear in 2 World Series, winning 1, and make 8 All-star teams.

The Pedro Martinez Houston got from San Diego on this date in 1994 didn’t win or save a single game for the Astros. He retired in 1998 at the age of 28.

From Houston to San Diego 
Ken Caminiti
Steve Finley
Andujar Cedeno
Roberto Petagine
Brian Williams

From San Diego to Houston
Derek Bell
Pedro A. Martinez
Phil Plantier
Doug Brocail
Ricky Gutierrez
Craig Shipley

Contributing sources:
The New York Times, December 29, 1994, by Murray Chase
Baseball-Reference.com
9 biggest baseball trades