Tag Archives: Major League Baseball

Baseball’s Jewish slugger: Hank Greenberg

February 23, 2013

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GREENBERG COVERHank 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.”

Outright bigotry

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.”

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Latest biography of Mickey Mantle as much about America and sports heroes as it is about baseball

December 22, 2010

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Saying the name Mickey Mantle in the 1950s and early 1960s conjured an image of the all-American boy for baseball fans.

Just as golf aficionados today say the name “Tiger” and even non-golfers know of whom one speaks, that was the star power of “The Mick”  — an image with legs for decades, one that sparked the baseball memorabilia craze of the 1980s and beyond.

Mantle was the best player, the best hitter, on the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees.

Jane Leavy, a former sportswriter, presents in a new biography all the reasons the name of this professional ballplayer  received — and deserved — that kind of recognition. But “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” goes well past the box scores and on-the-field heroics to give us the complete picture of Mickey Mantle.

Children of the Fifties who had to have the Mantle signature glove or who had to use the Mantle signature Louisville Slugger — guilty as charged, your honor! — will meet a different Mantle, Mantle the off-the-field man:

  • the self-admitted terrible excuse for a father;
  • the falling-down alcoholic;
  • the all-star who cried when he struck out;
  • the womanizer who constantly had a female “business manager” as well as a wife who was the mother of his children;
  • the amazingly good friend and supporter of worthy causes;
  • the jerk who wrote foul-language comments on baseballs for autograph seekers;
  • the humble athlete who was filled with self-doubt about his talent and who felt he never got the praise for how he played, at least not from whom he needed to hear it.

Baseball, yes, but much more

“The Last Boy” has just enough baseball to keep a sports nut turning pages. You’ll enjoy the comparison of Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider — all centerfielders in New York at the same time in the 1950s. You’ll come away thinking less of Casey Stengel and Joe DiMaggio. You’ll learn about the true friendship of Mantle and Roger Maris. And you’ll wonder if the baseball teams today coddle and protect their players the way the Yankees did there stars back in the day.

There are great anecdotes, including a brief one involving the Minnesota Twins’ pitcher Jim Kaat:

“Two-and-oh on Mantle, Earl Battey (Twins’ catcher) would wave his arms and make the sign of the cross.”

But there’s less baseball in this 420-page Harper hardcover than the typical fan might expect. That’s not a criticism. This is a exceptionally good book that I highly recommend. The number of interviews Leavy conducted with Mantle’s Yankee teammates, players on other teams, minor league teammates and opponents, hometown Oklahomans, family, fans, friends, media and medical people makes this an extremely thorough capturing of history. The study of the kinetics of Mantle’s swing alone is worth the price of the book ($27.99, but available now with discounts.)

Rather than being a baseball book, though, “The Last Boy” explains Mantle and major league baseball in the context of life in small-town America, life in the big city when you’re a star, and the sports hero worship of Mantle’s time. The Mick is the centerpiece for explaining all-too-frequent father-son relationships — both that of he and his father and he and his sons. The all-star centerfielder’s life helps us understand the perpetual childhood of some athletes, the privileged existence shoved upon the likes of a poor kid from Commerce, OK, and his inability to choose wisely when success on the field brought him celebrity and its perks.

In so many ways, Mantle’s story is a tragedy. Very late in life he came to realize that, and blessedly went through rehab to spend his last 18 months in sobriety. But from start to finish I found I could only take small bites of reading Mantle’s life story, and there were two reasons for that.

The pain no one knew

The first was that I was savoring this so-well-written work. Peavy has a great story to tell, and she tells is extremely well. But I came to feel so sorry for Mantle — sorry for the injuries that kept him from being even a greater player than he was, sorry for his inability to handle stardom, sorry for his sinning and the people he hurt — that I often found I had to stop reading because I couldn’t take anymore of this tragic waste of God’s gifts.

What was perhaps the most painful was reading how many people — teammates, reporters, members of the Yankee organization, even New York City cops — were unable or unwilling to help Mantle help himself. Swinging my 32-inch Mickey Mantle bat in the 1960s I knew nothing of the injured knee Mantle played on almost his entire 18-year career, nothing of his public drunkeness, nothing of his family life, what little of it there was.

This was a time — and I’m not sure it’s over completely — when reporters didn’t write that The Mick was unable to play because he was hungover.  Or that he had a succession of both mistresses and one-night stands. The fear of Mantle — or any other star player or celebrity — no longer speaking to a reporter kept them from doing anything more than praising the on-the-field Mantle, the powerful clean-up hitter, and gauging the distances of his home run blasts.

For my money, Leavy spends a bit too much time on what is allegedly one of the longest homers ever, but there is so much more that is interesting and informative and insightful in “The Lost Boy” that that misstep is easily forgiven. Her saga of interviewing the retired Mantle actually made me squirm; I’m wasn’t sure I wanted to read about that Mickey Mantle. But there’s a good point: Something in us doesn’t want our heroes tarnished

And today’s ‘heroes’ ?

Did we want to know that Tiger Woods had a mistress in New York when he had a supermodel wife  in Florida — or would we just rather see him making birdie puts on Sunday afternoons?

Did we really want to learn that Brett Favre had sent nude photos of himself to a woman who wasn’t his wife — or do we just want to remember him driving a team down for that final-minute winning touchdown?

To put this in a Catholic context, do we really want to know that a priest has abused young boys — or do we want to hold onto our image of our priests as holy men with no faults?

No place to hide

The end of America’s childhood. That’s the story that circulates around the life story of Mickey Mantle. There’s no more covering up. There’s no place to hide. There’s no one who can stop the foibles and failings of our heroes from being spread across television and computer screens, no less the pages of newspaper and magazines. And there’s no reason to do so.

Readers of “The Last Boy” may come to loathe some of the things Mantle did that tarnish his image, yet at the same time find much to like about The Mick, more than his 536 career homers. For one thing, he understood the power of his celebrity could be used for good, and did so both on behalf of many charities but also to help former teammates cash in on the trading card phenomenon.

It’s a wonderful reminder that we humans are neither all good nor all bad. What a great lesson to remember, especially in our own time, when so many choose to demonize others. None of us is perfect. None of us us all good, all holy, nor all evil. – bz

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What if the early black stars had been given their baseball seasons in the sun?

March 29, 2010

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The End of Baseball cover“The End of Baseball,”

by Peter Schilling Jr.

What if major league baseball hadn’t waited until 1947 to enjoy the athletic prowess of black ballplayers?

What if, in the midst of World War II, innovative Bill Veeck Jr. had purchased the Philadelphia Athletics and stocked the team with the stars of the Negro Leagues — Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin — during their prime?

During their heyday these players were the likes of Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks, and we know what just those three hall of famers brought to the big leagues.

Pete Schilling gives us a taste of how a season might have gone if baseball had been integrated before Branch Rickey took a gamble and put Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodger uniform. It’s a story filled with drama, with racism, with emotional moments on and off the field, with the wacky promotions that even the creative mind of Bill Veeck might never have tried.

And with baseball —  pure, unadulterated baseball.

Precursor to the exploding scoreboard?

Veeck — in real life the non-traditional owner at various times of the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Browns — brought fun and fans to the ballpark — and he’s the centerpiece of Schilling’s book, challenging the “gentleman’s agreement” among baseball owners to keep their sport lily white. (And the father of St. Paul Saints’ innovative owner Mike Veeck — he of the pig that brings new baseballs to the umpire!)

Tidbits of baseball history and lore are sprinkled throughout, signs that heroic research has been poured into the writing by Minnesota resident Schilling, who noted that he put seven years in at the St. Louis Park (MN) Home Depot to pay the mortgage while writing “The End of Baseball.”

In what may or may not be based in fact, Veeck fights off famed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to break the major league’s color barrier. Veeck’s memoir claims that he tried to do this very thing in 1942 but Landis — who was both judge and jury when it came to baseball policy during his 24-year reign — stopped him, fearing letting blacks play would be “the end of baseball.” Whether the novel captures history accurately or not, the battle makes for a fictional morality play and great, tension-filled reading.

And the innovations the fictional Veeck tries in order to fill seats at Philadelphia’s old Shibe Park are just as kooky — and successful! — as any of the promotions the real Veeck pulled off as a major league owner, including the scoreboard that shot off fireworks every time those pennant-winning 1959 Go-Go White Sox homered, the movable outfield fence in Cleveland (moved in or out 15 feet depending on the power of the opponent) and his most famous stunt, having a midget bat for the St. Louis Browns in order to induce a base on balls.

Famed supporting cast

Veeck may be the protagonist, but this is a book with a cast of worthy characters including the ageless Satchel Paige, the “Black Babe Ruth” Gibson, and future National League MVP Roy Campanella, a star for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.

The blatant racism fans, hotels and restaurants in many cities show to the novel’s all-black A’s isn’t unlike what Robinson encountered when he played for the Dodgers in the late 1940s and what major league players like Fergie Jenkins and Dick Allen encountered even in the 1960s. While racism still exists in America, the fact that today white fans can cheer the likes of Torii Hunter, Ryan Howard and Derek Jeter only makes the “what-if” of the storyline of  “The End of Baseball” a cause of sorrow and regret.

So read this excellent book, then go online and do a search for the names above — some of the greats of the Negro Leagues who never got to shine at the major league level. One excellent source, too, is http://www.mlb.com.

Plug “Black players” into the search box and you’ll find page after page of history worth knowing and stories worth remembering. — bz

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