Hank Greenberg won the 1940 American League MVP Award. At the time, the selection aroused some controversy. Few questioned the strength of Greenberg’s campaign. However, Cleveland’s Bob Feller posted an historic season winning the pitching Triple Crown. Despite Feller’s heroics, Greenberg outpaced the Indian in the final balloting. In another era, Feller might have won the Cy Young Award unanimously. In 1940, voters did not have that option. In the end, the voters selected Greenberg from the pennant winning Tigers as opposed to Feller from the runner-up Indians.
The Tigers needed to find room for slugger Rudy York. York could hit, but was a disaster in the field. Detroit tried the slugger at catcher, third base, and in the outfield. York proved problematic as he led the league in pass balls twice, posted a weak .982 fielding percentage behind the plate, and lasted just 14 games in the outfield. First base seemed the only place to hide York’s glove. However, the team boasted one of the game’s greats at the position in Hank Greenberg.
Prior to the 1940 season, Detroit management approached Greenberg to switch to the outfield. At first, Greenberg was reticent to try a new position at 29. He finally agreed for the good of the team and worked his tail off to become a serviceable left fielder. Defensively, Greenberg committed 15 errors in the outfield, but showed dramatic improvement as the season wore on. At the plate, he continued to terrorize pitchers. For the year, the Tiger led the league in doubles (50), home runs (41), RBI (150), slugging (.670), OPS (1.103), and total bases (384) while batting .340. Meanwhile, the Tigers finished with 90 wins and won the pennant by a single game over the Indians.
Bob Feller led the Indians from wire-to-wire. He no-hit the White Sox on Opening Day and never looked back. By season’s end, Feller won the Triple Crown with 27 wins, 2.61 ERA, and 261 strikeouts. He also led the league in games (43), game starts (37), complete games (31), innings (320.1), and WHIP (1.133). The Sporting News proclaimed the pitcher the MLB Player of the Year.
Greenberg garnered 16 first place MVP votes to Feller’s six. Yankee Joe DiMaggio (.352, 31, 133) finished third with no first place votes. Greenberg’s teammate Bobo Newsom (21-5, 2.83) finished fourth with one first place vote. The final first place vote went to Cleveland’s Lou Boudreau (.295, 9, 101). Other Tigers to earn MVP votes included Schoolboy Rowe, Rudy York, Dick Bartell, Barney McCosky, and Charlie Gehringer.
Feller posted a 9.8 WAR for 1940 compared to Greenberg’s 7.1. However, Greenberg switched positions which made a difference to voters. On top of this, Feller was just 21 while Greenberg turned 29 on January 1. Greenberg’s nine seasons and 1935 MVP out-shined Feller’s five stellar seasons. Perhaps most importantly, Detroit won the pennant while the Indians finished second. Lastly, Greenberg played in 148 games while the pitcher appeared in 43. Team success, number of games played, the position switch, and Greenberg’s veteran status all trumped Feller’s historic 1940 season.
Is a pitcher more valuable than a position player? The voters in 1940 chose the position player. Hank Greenberg switched from first base to left field to help his team by making room for Rudy York. York and Greenberg bashed the Tigers to the pennant. In the end, the pennant winning Tigers outlasted Feller’s Indians. As a result, Greenberg won the MVP.