Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and Detroit Tigers’ legendary slugger Hank Greenberg, America’s first Jewish sports celebrity, traveled to Jackson State Prison in Jackson, Michigan on request of the former leaders of the notorious Purple Gang to play in a charity game on the penitentiary diamond in the early 1940s, according to FBI records and Greenberg’s own autobiography. A native New Yorker, Greenberg was a five-time MLB All-Star, four-time home-run champ and two-time American League MVP awardee.

The Purple Gang was the Motor City’s Jewish mob at the height of Prohibition, sprouting up on Motown’s rough-and-rugged eastside and centering around bootlegging, extortion, kidnapping and gambling rackets overseen by the organization’s “founding fathers,” the four Burnstein brothers, Abe, Joe, Ray and Izzy. Abe, the eldest sibling, was the gang’s architect and boss, Joe, its’ handsome, well-dressed political fix-it man and Abe’s main go-between to affairs on the street, Ray, the head of the gang’s enforcement unit and Izzy, the family’s youngest sibling, was in charge of syndicate bookmaking activities and Joe’s right-hand man.

Known to take family trips to watch the Tigers play, all the Burnstein boys were friendly with Greenberg. So much so, they got him to be a ringer in a prison baseball game that took place in the summer of 1941 in the months after Greenberg left the big leagues and joined the army to serve in WWII.

In 1930, at the peak of the Purple Gang’s power, Greenberg (19) was the youngest player in Major League Baseball. At the time of Greenberg’ enlistment in the military at the beginning of the following decade , the Purple Gang – responsible for more than 500 murders, was no longer in existence, having quietly disbanded in prior years, absorbed by Detroit’s Italian mafia.

While Joe and Izzy Burnstein fled Michigan in the days after the Prohibition Act was repealed in 1933, settling in California, Abe Burnstein remained in Detroit at the Purples’ old headquarters, the Book Cadillac Hotel, occupying the penthouse suite and acting as an on-call counselor for the city’s Italian mob dons, Joseph (Joe Uno) Zerilli and William (Black Bill) Tocco. The Book Cadillac was down the street from the Leland Hotel, where Greenberg lived. FBI documents from the 1930s note Greenberg’s dining and carousing with the Burnsteins and other Purples at Detroit hotspots.

Ray Burnstein was jailed for organizing the infamous 1931 Collingwood Massacre, the triple homicide of three Chicago transplants operating as the Purple Gang’s booze-smuggling wing at Detroit’s Collingwood Apartments. He was first locked up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at Marquette State Prison and then by the 1940s he was transferred to Jackson State Prison, closer to Detroit (roughly 90 miles west).

With a prison system open to payoffs, Burnstein and his Purple cronies ruled the roost behind bars. Burnstein literally kicked the warden of Jackson State Prison out of his office and took it over himself. State Police documents describe Burnstein and other Purples frequently leaving prison grounds in Michigan Department of Corrections vehicles, driving to Detroit for meetings, romantic rendezvous and occasional ball games – a number of imprisoned Purples attended the 1935 and 1945 World Series, both won by Greenberg and the Tigers.

Per Abe Burnstein’s FBI file, the Jewish Godfather personally called Greenberg to a lunch meeting at the Cream of Michigan Café (a popular Purple Gang hangout) in July 1941 and asked that he take his army regiment, training in Battle Creek at Fort Custer at the time, to Jackson State Prison to play a charity exhibition game against the correctional institute’s own team that his brother Ray played on and managed. There was a kicker, though. Abe Burnstein wanted Greenberg to play on the prison team, not the Fort Custer, which he would wind up doing. Further encouragement came from a long, hand-written letter by Ray to Greenberg, personally asking him to join his club for the game and describing what a hero and idol he was for him and the Jewish people in general, according to the file.

Anchored by Greenberg’s two home runs, the prison squad bested a Fort Custer team featuring almost entirely made up of semi-pros, 9-6. Greenberg recalls the charity game on prison grounds and his relationship with the Burnstein brothers in his autobiography, published three years following his death from cancer in 1986 at age 75.

Greenberg left baseball for four years to fight in WWII, seeing duty in the South Pacific. He retired in 1947, spending his final season in uniform with the Pittsburgh Pirates and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

Ray Burnstein was finally released from prison in 1964 and died shortly thereafter. Abe Burnstein died of a heart attack in his room at the Book Cadillac in 1968. Greenberg attended both funerals.

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