Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

I first encountered the device of the unfounded accusatory rhetorical when, as a teenager, I became fascinated by the Lincoln assassination conspiracy. A best-seller at the time was Web of Conspiracy, an over-heated brief for the theory that Lincoln’s War Secretary, Edwin Stanton, and others were in league with John Wilkes Booth. The author, a mystery writer named Theodore Roscoe, was constantly suggesting sinister motives by asking questions like “The sealed records of the official assassination investigation were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Was the War Department afraid of what the documents would prove? Would they have implicated Stanton? We will never know.”  This tactic is on view regularly today, used generously by the purveyors of modern conspiracies, but it is also a regrettably common tool of journalists and historians. Now the eclectic sports journalist Howard Megdal (who also edits a terrific website, The Perpetual Posthas found a new use for it. His question: “When Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers made a run at Babe Ruth’s season home run record, falling two short with 58 in 1938, was he pitched around because he was Jewish?”

Megdal not only claims this is a “72-year-old mystery,” but also asserts that it “seems” resolved by new evidence. His answer: yes! Hank Greenberg was stopped from breaking Babe Ruth’s record because of anti-Semitism!

The problem: the evidence that Edwin Stanton conspired to kill Lincoln is more persuasive.

Megdal’s argument goes like this:

  • Hank Greenberg was Jewish.
  • Hank Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth’s single season record for home runs in 1938.
  • Anti-Semitism was in full flower in 1938.
  • Greenberg just missed the record (he got only 58).
  • Greenberg walked more frequently in 1938 than in any of his seasons before or after.
  • He received bases on balls more frequently at the end of the season than he did at the beginning, and
  • This pattern was not repeated by any of the other players who chased the Babe’s record, therefore…
  • the pitchers in 1938 were not pitching to Greenberg because they didn’t want a Jew breaking the Babe’s record.

That’s it. And it could hardly be more meaningless. To begin with, the sample he is comparing Greenberg to is absurdly small. Four players, other than Greenberg, had real runs at Ruth’s record: Jimmy Foxx in 1932, Roger Maris in 1961, and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. It is true that none of them walked appreciably more during their chase seasons than they did the rest of their careers. But McGwire walked more that season than Greenberg ever did. Maris was especially unlikely to be walked because Mickey Mantle was batting behind him, and Sosa would barely take a walk if you handed him one on a platter. Comparing McGwire to four players, especially these four, tells us nothing.

Megdal also manipulates the facts to find the “answer”  to his “mystery.” He writes,

Greenberg received many more walks as he chased Ruth in 1938 than he did in the rest of his career. Almost no other hitter going after the home run record had anything like Greenberg’s late-season spike in bases on balls. He had 119 walks to lead the A.L., the only time he did so…”

Megdal doesn’t tell us, perhaps because it undermines his argument, that Greenberg did lead the National League in bases on balls in 1947, with a higher walk percentage than he had in 1938, during a season when he hit all of 25 home runs. Whose record were those bigoted, Jew-hating pitchers protecting then? Gavvy Cravath?  The typical reader will think Greenberg never led any league in walks except in 1938, which is what Megdal wants him to think. Sorry Howard; I think this is the hidden ball trick.

Greenberg’s walk totals for his career include numbers like 102, 104, 91 and 93. Does 119 seem out of character for a player with that history? Greenberg walked 16 more times than any other season in the year he hit 58 home runs. This seems very unremarkable to me. I just picked a slugger at random: Mo Vaughn. In 1996, his best power season, he walked 95 times, his all-time high, nine times more than his next highest total, 16 more times than his third highest, and more than 20 times more than any other season. So what? (For further analysis of Greenberg’s walks in 1938 by someone who is a better at it than I am, go here.)

Megdal’s certainty of an anti-Semitic conspiracy is based on confirmation bias and little else. What evidence is there that the pitchers cared about Babe Ruth’s record, or who broke it? The 60 figure was barely a decade old in 1938; neither Ruth nor the record had yet grown to the iconic proportions Roger Maris had to contend with in 1961. Did Hank Greenberg, who presumably might have heard some whispers about a widespread pitching conspiracy not to let a Jew break the home run record, think he was being walked for this reason? Well, er, no. Megdal admits that Greenberg pronounced such speculation “pure baloney.”  However, the author notes, “To shift responsibility for his falling short of the record onto others would have been out of character.” Right—Greenberg wasn’t paranoid. But Greenberg’s dismissal of the anti-Semitism excuse for his failure to break the record went farther than that, and it undermines his argument. In Lawrence Ritter’s wonderful  The Glory of Their Times, Greenberg is quoted as saying this:

“Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn’t break Ruth’s record was [that], because I was Jewish, the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me. That’s pure baloney. The fact of the matter is quite the opposite: so far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers. I remember one game Bill Dickey was catching for the Yankees, he was even telling me what was coming up. The reason I didn’t hit 60 or 61 homers is because I ran out of gas; it had nothing to do with being Jewish.”

Can we agree that the authority on whether Greenberg “ran out of gas” at the end of the 1938 season or didn’t get enough good pitches to hit should be Hank Greenberg, and not Howard Megdal?

Megdal’s essay violates Occam’s Razor, the logical principle that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. (Back to Web of Conspiracy: Roscoe made much of the fact that several pages from Booth’s diary, recovered from his body, were found missing—torn out—when it was examined later for evidence. “Did Secretary Stanton remove passages implicating him in Lincoln’s murder?” Roscoe asked. One debunking historian coyly noted: “It shouldn’t take much imagination to figure out why a fugitive hiding for days in the woods might tear out some pages in a diary…”) Isn’t the simplest and fairest assumption that pitchers walked Greenberg because he was hitting home runs at a furious rate? Or that Greenberg was just in a groove that season, and may have been more patient than usual?  That he didn’t break the record because, well, he just didn’t?*

Instead, Megdal uses leaps of logic and innuendo to conclude that a concerted, unjust effort, motivated by bigotry, stopped Hank Greenberg from being baseball’s single season home run champion, and in doing so, impugns the character of dozens of pitchers, based on the weakest and most circumstantial of evidence. This is exactly the process going on today regarding performance enhancing drugs, with everyone from established sports reporters to bloggers “just asking questions” about whether a player’s best years were fueled by illicit substances.

This is just wrong; it is unethical journalism and unfair analysis.  There are some questions that shouldn’t be asked until there is enough genuine evidence to begin answering them. Until there is, such questions become their own answers, which is often exactly what the questioner intends.

I do not believe that this was what Howard Megdal intended, though I think the question he asks could have that effect. Unethical journalists use this device regularly, and I would hope that the ethics alarms of ethical journalists, like Howard, would sound before they do the same.


*Note: I do not want to suggest that Hank Greenberg did not have to contend with significant anti-Semitism during his career, for he certainly did. You can read about it here.

16 thoughts on “Unethical Questions, Anti-Semitism, and Greenberg’s Chase

  1. I agree with your concept–new to me–of unethical questions. But I think the answer to the question of whether Greenberg was walked because “they” didn’t want Jew breaking Ruth’s record is unknowable. My brother–13 in 1938–remembers that Jews of our community at the time believed that “they” were against him–and us. Who knows? The Tiger owner, Walter Briggs, had a reputation in those days among Detroit Jews as an anti-Semite, and antisemitism was pretty widespread.

    • Bob: it’s unknowable because you can’t prove a negative. But Briggs signed Greenberg and paid him well for the time, because in that business as in others, winning and profit trumped bias. Since pitchers are paid to win, their walking Greenberg should be presumed to be in the natural course of doing their job, absent any proof other than general distrust. Since Megdal has no such thing—the stats just aren’t convincing—he should shut up.

      And this: even if all the pitchers were card-carrying Jew-haters, what reason is there to think that they would pick stopping Greenberg from breaking an 11 year-old record by a New York Yankee slugger pitchers didn’t like much either? I just don’t get it.

  2. Pingback: The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Did Anti-Semitism Prevent Hank Greenberg from Breaking Babe Ruth’s Home Run Record?

  3. This is exactly the process going on today regarding performance enhancing drugs, with everyone from established sports reporters to bloggers “just asking questions” about whether a player’s best years were fueled by illicit substances.

    Jack, I agree with you in concept. I’m sick of the ‘just throwing it out there’ and ‘I’m not saying, I’m just saying’ arguments.
    My question is in regards to your quote above and it how it relates to Greenburg. I think speculation, questions by definition, are perfectly suitable journalistic topics. I would be okay with Megdal saying something along the lines of, ‘An existing rumor states the Greenberg was prevented from breaking Ruth’s record by anti-semetic pitchers refusing to throw him hittable pitches at the end of the ’38 season. Statistical evidence is not strong enough to affirm this notion, but does provide slight direction evidence to its affirmation.’
    If Megdal explains the statistical shortcomings of his method, as you did above, are you saying that the article would still be unethical journalism and unfair analysis.?

    • No. That’s a good distinction, and I should have made it myself. I do not agree with the prevailing opinion that to even discuss a dubious or even offensive conspiracy theory is to give it credibility. We can show that the Holocaust happened, and should, when Deniers start getting publicity on their own. On the other hand, when Lou Dobbs presented the theory of “the Birthers” as if there was a genuine controversy, I found that objectionable. The Greenberg matter falls somewhere between. I think it’s an unprovable thesis, and I think to rise to a level where it is ethical to discuss in in print, there needs to be some legitimate shred of evidence to justify raising the question, other than “there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the Thirties.”

  4. Hi Jack,

    Just wanted to make a few of points here:

    1. You talk about how I am the person to raise the question of Greenberg’s treatment, as if the question didn’t previously exist. But I have been on a book tour for the better part of a year, and I get asked about this at every single stop. Every one. So while you may prefer to assign unsavory motives without bothering to ask me, that is the actual genesis of my interest in the subject.

    2. You seem to be willfully ignoring every point I made within the piece to stress that we don’t know anything definitively. Seems strange that when presenting my argument, you chose to incorrectly paraphrase. I presented the evidence carefully, made certain to add that we couldn’t know what AL pitchers were thinking, and even conclude with:

    “But the statistical record stands as evidence that Greenberg’s religion might have been an additional barrier.”

    Note the might, language that is consistent throughout the piece. The only one who made a definitive argument is your straw man.

    3. Your article accuses me of “intentional deceit” by failing to note that he also led the NL in walks in 1947. Ridiculous. His 1947 season has everything to do with old player skills, a common occurrence with old sluggers. But there obviously isn’t time or space to discuss that in an 750-word piece.

    4. Again, I made certain to include Greenberg’s own denial of this theory- but you claim I don’t include the full, 101-word quote in a 752-word piece because it “undermined his argument.” Can you think of another reason?

    Occam’s Razor ought to apply to wild accusations against a journalist as well.

    • Dear Howard: I have read your work for a long time, and I think my disappointment at this particular piece, which I think is beneath you, colored my tone, for which I am sorry.
      But you do begin the article with this: “Evidence has finally been published that seems to resolve a 72-year-old mystery.” Well, it doesn’t. It doesn’t resolve any mystery at all, because there is no mystery, only unfounded speculation from those looking for a conspiracy where none exists. Again, here is Greenberg on the “mystery” in “The Glory of Their Times:

      “Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn’t break Ruth’s record was [that], because I was Jewish, the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me. That’s pure baloney. The fact of the matter is quite the opposite: so far as I could tell, the players were mostly rooting for me, aside from the pitchers. I remember one game Bill Dickey was catching for the Yankees, he was even telling me what was coming up. The reason I didn’t hit 60 or 61 homers is because I ran out of gas; it had nothing to do with being Jewish.”

      Now shouldn’t that end the matter? Greenberg says he ran out of gas. I take that as first hand, reliable evidence. Ritter’s book is almost 50 years old. Why is this still a “72 year-old mystery”?

      On your other points:

      1. People ask whether President Obama was born in Nigeria, whether Bush and Cheney let the Twin Towers fall, and whether the Holocaust took place. That doesn’t justify examining those issues as legitimate questions in the NTY.
      2. As I pointed out, the statistical record doesn’t support the theory in the least.
      3. Howard, I know all about old player skills, but the point was and remains that you asserted that Greenberg’s walk total in 1938 was out of contxt with his career, and that would be impossible to maintain while noting the walks in his final season. You can’t make a statistics-based case and then argue away the statistics you don’t like. At least let the reader decide. I can’t tell what is in your heart either, but you’re usually a careful guy. If it was an inadvertent omission, then I retract my verdict of intentional deceit, and apologize.
      4. Sure, I can think of the other reasons not to run the whole quote. I cannot, however, think of another reason to only quote the “baloney” line, which gives the impression of gut-level disbelief, and omit the substantive statement, “I ran out of gas.”

      Suggesting that a writer or journalist, especially in the sports field, tortures the facts and selectively presents statistics in order to support a dubious position is hardly “wild.” Even when it is applied to otherwise admirable practitioners, like you. I confess that I’ve been guilty of this myself on occasion. But not this time.

  5. Jack,

    Appreciate your apology- throwing around words like “unethical journalist” while willfully misstating my argument with strawman arguments is worthy of an apology, since both are untrue. I defy aqnyone to read my piece and conclude fairly that I argue, as you state: “yes! Hank Greenberg was stopped from breaking Babe Ruth’s record because of anti-Semitism!”

    On your other points:
    1. Obama’s birth? The Holocaust? Greenberg’s pursuit of the HR record? HUGE DIFFERENCE. Where Obama was born, the existence of the Holocaust, etc. have been resolved with a ton of objective evidence. We don’t know that Obama was born in Hawaii because of personal recollection. We know because of his birth certificate, contemporary newspaper clips, etc. And obviously, the Holocaust has a tragic, thorough evidence trail as well.
    Greenberg’s treatment? We have his denial, and the recollections of many others that contrast with it.
    This question of Greenberg’s treatment, to my mind, cannot begin to be resolved without the game logs to determine walk rates. The publishing of that new work is clearly worth examining, in my opinion. Or is it your belief that looking at new evidence about any historical question automatically endorses Holocaust deniers? Because that seems pretty far-fetched.

    2. We’ll agree to disagree on this. I believe that Greenberg’s treatment, for standing out relative to the rest of his season, the season before, the season after, and the treatment of others who pursued the home run record, is statistical evidence worth considering. As I made clear in the piece, I don’t think it definitively resolves anything, which is why your paraphrase of me, in definitive terms and with multiple exclamation points, is so questionable.

    3. Again, disagree. If we are weighing Greenberg’s treatment by pitchers, comparing the 1938 season with the 1937 and 1939 season is the far more relevant context than a season that took place nine years later in the other league. Again, though, note that you falsely claim I omitted this intentionally and unethically. Rather, I made an informed choice based upon analytical precepts. You chose to claim otherwise, without even asking me first. So which of these two claims is baseless?

    4. I went with pure baloney, rather than the latter quote about running out of gas, because I thought the former was the MORE forceful denial. But again, I think statistical evidence is far more compelling than personal recollection here. We can agree to disagree- it doesn’t make you right and me wrong, or either of us unethical.

    Again, the irony in posting about ethical lapses, while making accusations like calling me an “unethical journalist” while misstating my arguments, is pretty clear.

  6. Dear Howard: I don’t want to be Clintonian here, but I swear, I was not calling you an unethical journalist. I began, by way of introduction, by saying that the open-ended question raising suspicion where none should be is a tactic often used by unethical journalists and historians, and it is. I think it’s an unethical approach, I think you mistakenly used it on this occasion, but I do not and never have thought of you as an unethical journalist, and I will clarify that in the post immediately. Ethical professionals do unethical things sometimes, usually when they don’t see them as unethical.

    Obviously, I don’t believe that I misstated your arguments, and I did link to your article, so any reader can decide on their own.

  7. Okay, you guys. You’ve tortured the ethics question politely long enough, with no real resolution (though I agree with Marshall).

    But it’s also a question of rhetoric, logic, and precise writing. One simply cannot pick and choose the data one chooses to prove one’s point, then ask a question that points to only answer. Don’t ask the question or “point out” the proof of the data. I think we all should have learned much of late from Al Gore about the danger of discarding data that does not support one’s position. Or, hate to mention this, the health care reform debate.

    Many years ago (when I was a babe in arms, but then I was very precocious) I read Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods.” He used the same tactic. Sure there are many mysteries about the ancient world that have yet to be answered, but he STARTED from the premise that it HAD to be early visits from aliens to planet Earth, and used only data and interpretation to prove this theorem. And then the big question: “What else could it be?”

    Unfair science. Sloppy thinking. And worst, taking advantage of people of don’t or can’t see it for what it is.

  8. You can use statistics to argue that the pitchers were biased against Greenberg or use statistics to argue the opposite view that the pitchers were not biased. There is a saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The point is — statistics can be used to bolster weak arguments, and people have a tendency to disparage statistics that do not support their positions.

    I read the story in its entirety in the New York Times. From the beginning of the season until the end of August, Greenberg walked in 15.9% of his plate appearances. (Author Megdal states that, “In September, that rate jumped to 20.4 percent.” Since the Tigers played three games in October, I will assume Megdal meant for that %age to apply from September 1 onward, not in September alone.) You might say, “So what. His walk total after Sept.1 went up by only 4.5%.” Actually, his walk total increased by 28.3% (4.5 / 15.9 = 28.3). I would say that is a statistically significant figure. If a batter had a batting average of .250 one season and increased it by 28.3% next season, he would be batting .321. He would be considered one of the most improved players in the league if taking into account only batting average. Or if a batter had 31 homers one season and increased it by 28.3% next season, he would have 40 homers.

    The Tigers played 155 games that season (there was one tie) and Greenberg played in all of them. Greenberg hit homer number 47, his first in the month of September, on Sept 9 in game 132. That’s still a long way from Ruth’s 60. With their victory on Sept 9, the Tigers were three games over .500, 23.5 games out. So it’s not like the Tigers had a shot at the pennant. There wasn’t the pressure of carrying the team on his shoulders the rest of the way, so that would make it a little easier on Greenberg; plus, there wasn’t the impetus for the pitchers to try to spoil the Tiger’s chances of winning the pennant.

    Hank’s totals for the last 24 games were 12 HR and 17 BB. That’s the same rate as hitting 77 HR and drawing 109 BB in 154 games. He actually drew 119 BB that season, so in those final 24 games his BB average fell just slightly but his HR average was stratospheric. In the 24 games before that (games 108 through 131) he had 7 HR and 20 BB. If a bogus case of bias were to be made, it’s that pitchers were trying to walk him more in the 24 games before he hit home run 47 in game 132 than in the 24 games after. The 4.5% increase in walks that Megdal noticed from Sept 1 onward (I haven’t checked the accuracy of his statistical analysis) shows up particularly in games 124 through 131, played from Sept 1 – 8, when Hank drew 11 of them (for a rate of 212 BB in 154 games) while hitting zero home runs. Remember what I said about lies, damn lies, and statistics? It was starting with game 132 that Hank got his home run swing back.

    The last 24 games of the season, if divided into two 12 game segments, yield the following results. Hank had 8 HR (including two 2 HR games to give him 54 for the season) and 7 BB in the first 12 game segment; he drew walks in 5 of those 12 games. In the second 12 game segment he had 4 HR and 10 BB; he drew walks in 6 of those 12 games. Are three more walks in the second 12 game segment an indication of bias by the pitchers? Hardly. In both segments, the Tigers won 9 and lost 3. So since the rest of the team was playing well, it wasn’t likely that the pitchers were trying to pitch around Greenberg to get to another batter.

    For whatever the reason, Hank hit “only” 4 home runs in the last 12 games. Still, that’s an impressive rate of 51 in 154 games. After game 131 the Tigers had only 5 days off and played 5 doubleheaders — with 4 of the 5 doubleheaders coming in the final 13 games — so maybe fatigue was a factor in his home run decline. As Greenberg stated, he ran out of gas. On the other hand, 20 of the Tigers final 24 games were at home, so they wouldn’t have been worn out by travel. My conclusion, based on the final 24 games, is that there wasn’t bias against Greenberg by the pitchers. As Megdal states in the article, Greenberg said it was “pure baloney” that the pitchers were biased against him for being Jewish. Hank Greenberg got that right.

    The source of the statistics I used came from the Baseball-reference.com website, http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/DET/1938-schedule-scores.shtml You can click on the box score link for a particular game to see how Hank did.

    • Did you do all that work just for this comment? If so, you should spread it around. The analysis over at http://the0common0man.blogspot.com/2010/03/sometimes-smart-people-get-ahold-of.html is also impressive.

      I’m an ethicist, not a statistician, and on this matter, I mostly reacted at a gut level. The claim seems unfair to me, in the absence of more unequivocal evidence, especially when one is arguing for conduct that would be unusual, to say the least. It is nice to have the statistics too, though.

      • Work? What work? To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, “Statistics in the defense of ethics is no vice.” I had to satisfy my own curiosity whether or not there was a hidden attempt to deny Hank Greenberg a fair shot at breaking Ruth’s record. As to your suggestion about spreading it around, I submitted my comment to a Yahoo! Sports web page where it is the last of 93 comments and has stayed that way for the past 12 hours. I guess interest in the article is waning after being posted only two days ago. I’ll check out that blog you provided the link for. I was surprised that the original New York Times article didn’t have provision for reader comments.

  9. Pingback: Jewish World News – Was Hank Greenberg Pitched Around Because He Was Jewish?

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