Hank Greenberg’s name comes up less often than that of other baseball greats, even though he hit 58 home runs in a season, four times led the American League in both homers and runs batted in, twice was named most valuable player and is in the Hall of Fame.
But the slugger from the World Series-winning Detroit Tiger teams of the 1930s and ’40s deserves a place along side Ruth, Gehrig and Aaron, and Minneapolis writer John Rosengren presents persuasive evidence and compelling reading in a new biography, “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes” (New American Library).
It’s a book about a man’s life, about homers, RBIs, slugging percentages and dramatic moments on the diamond in the era when the nation was glued to radio sets to catch the games. But Rosengren’s meticulous research makes the case that Greenberg is due recognition not just for the way he played between the chalk lines, not just for volunteering for military service after Pearl Harbor when he was the highest-paid player in the country, but for lifting up an entire people in an atmosphere of religious and ethnic prejudice
Greenberg was Jewish.
Jews didn’t play baseball. Jews themselves thought it not a worthy profession, and much of society at the time thought Jews weren’t built with the strength or attributes to play sports.
Hank Greenberg changed that, pushing assimilation forward for a generation of immigrant Jews and their children.
Sept. 10 was Rosh Hashanah in 1934, and the Detroit Tigers were in a pennant race. Jews were to neither work nor played on Rosh Hashanah.
But on that Rosh Hashanah star first-baseman Hank Greenberg went to the synagogue in the morning and in the afternoon hit one home run to tie the Boston Red Sox then another, walk-off homer in the ninth inning to win the key game that led to the Tigers winning the pennant.
With that balanced approach “He had begun to change the way Jews thought about baseball,” Rosengren writes, “and the way baseball fans — Americans — thought about Jews.”
Much the way Jackie Robinson would be heckled in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he became the first Black player to break the major league’s color barrier, Greenberg faced the anti-semetic prejudice of the 1930s. Opposing fans and players alike called out slurs like “kike” and “sheeny” when he came to bat.
Rosengren shares several anecdotes that tell what that was like for Greenberg, none better than the following.
Playing against Chicago one day, Greenberg was harassed all game from the White Sox dugout. As he was running down the first base someone shouted, “You big, yellow Jew bastard!”
After the game, Greenberg walked into the Chicago clubhouse and announced, “I want the guy who called me a ‘yellow Jew bastard’ to get to his feet and say it to my face.”
“No one moved,” Rosengren writes. “Hank walked slowly around the room and looked at each of them. . . . Not one of the dared stand up.”
Rosengren puts the ballplayer’s biography into the culture of the times, combining baseball stories with references to what was going on around the globe as well as what was happening in American life — Shirley Temple dancing in the movies, Walter Winchell gossiping on the pages of the nation’s newspapers and Detroit’s own Father Charles Coughlin spewing diatribes on the radio against bankers, Jews and Franklin Roosevelt.
The prejudice Greenberg faced plays against the background of quotas that were prevalent to limit the percentage of Jews in various areas of life in the United States, the bias he found in the media and the world stage, where Hitler’s ethnic cleansing would have a fateful impact on Greenberg’s career.
Warts and all
Greenberg is no saint, though, and this is no hageography. The star’s competitiveness at times makes him his own worst enemy. After four years serving in the Army Air Force during World War II — including duty overseas — steals what may have been prime years from his already outstanding career, Greenberg gets involved in the front-office end of baseball as a general manager and part owner, and at times is as ruthless as the front office people he battled when he was a player himself.
He crafts a team that in 1954 breaks the strangehold the New York Yankees have on the American League pennant, but his lack of skill in the public relations realm eventually gets him fired.
Yet he was also a man ahead of his time, advocating for a pension plan for ballplayers, arguing for baseball to drop the reserve clause, calling for a football-like draft to equalize the talent among the teams, championing interleague play and urging expansion to California, all of which eventually happened.
What Rosengren has done, it seems to this fan of baseball past as well as present, is bring to life a man and a baseball era worthy of being better known by those who love the game.
Like another Henry when Aaron was harassed by bigots as he chased the then elusive 60 home run mark, Greenberg too heard the catcalls and received the threatenting letters in the year he hit 58. America’s prejudices die hard, if they ever die.
But given the background of Nazism abroad and bigoted ignorance at home, Greenberg’s accomplishments deserve an airing with just the excellence Rosengren’s source-filled, reader-friendly, baseball-loving treatment provides. Perhaps he put it best:
“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mightly figure and, in his image as a home run slugger, a symbol of power. He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”