Hank Greenberg, Reluctant Jewish Hero

Despite His Inclinations, He Excelled as a Power Hitter, Soldier and Community Representative

A Diamond in the Diamond: Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg captured the hearts of a generation through his performances at the nation’s baseball stadia.
Getty Images
A Diamond in the Diamond: Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg captured the hearts of a generation through his performances at the nation’s baseball stadia.

By Leonard Kriegel

Published June 08, 2011, issue of June 17, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One
By Mark Kurlansky
Yale University Press, 192 pages, $25

If America truly is in decline, then some of us would ascribe that decline to the cultural euthanasia that made football and basketball more popular than baseball. For my generation of urban children of immigrant Jews, baseball was inseparable from the Ribono Shel Olam (Lord of the Universe) himself.

One of my more vivid childhood memories is marching with the Hebrew School of the Bronx’s Mosholu Jewish Center into the Polo Grounds in the spring of 1943 to see my first major league game, and then silently davening at the sight of that grass-and-dirt geometry of hope I saw before me. The best Jewish athlete I knew of in 1943 was Sid Luckman, the great T-formation quarterback of the Chicago Bears. But it was Hank Greenberg and Barney Ross, a baseball player and a boxer, respectively — both away fighting Hitler and Tojo — whom I viewed with the kind of pristine adoration that boys in Athens of fifth-century BCE must have viewed Achilles. Baseball was the king of all sports, boxing the prince regent.

Playing first for the Giants that day was Phil Weintraub, whose career suffered far more from the virulent anti-Semitism of the 1930s than did the career of Greenberg, the object of my adoration and the subject of Mark Kurlansky’s short biography, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One.” After his rookie season, Greenberg was a bright star in the baseball firmament. Playing in Detroit, home of Henry Ford’s psychotically anti-Semitic Dearborn News and the Rev. Charles Coughlin’s virulently anti-Semitic radio diatribes, he was, throughout the decade of the 1930s, the best right-handed power hitter in baseball. Weintraub, on the other hand, was a superb minor league hitter who bounced around the majors like a yo-yo. Had he not hit in the majors, he could be dismissed as just another major league bust. But read sabermetrician Howard Megdal on Weintraub in “The Baseball Talmud” (HarperCollins, 2009), and it is difficult not to see anti-Semitism as what kept Weintraub from an outstanding major league career.

I worshiped Greenberg for the same reason I worshiped Barney Ross: They both could hit. Anti-Semitism during the 1930s and ’40s was viral, even in the Bronx. And for me, Greenberg, no longer slugging home runs for the Tigers but serving in the Army, embodied physical resistance to it. He was big, he was from the Bronx — and he was a Jew. One didn’t need to be a sabermetrician to rattle off his homers and batting averages through the ’30s — and he was a Jew. Greenberg, the two-time American League MVP, was no prima donna; in 1940, he agreed to switch to the outfield from first base for the good of the team, a move that resulted in the Tigers winning the pennant — and he was a Jew. He had come close to matching an already hallowed baseball statistic, Babe Ruth’s 60 homers in a season — and he was a Jew.

Like Ross, Greenberg embodied what — however politically incorrect the term may be — one can speak of as Jewish masculinity and toughness. And yet, as Kurlansky is at pains to point out, no man was more reluctant to serve as a Jewish example. Praised by Jew and gentile alike for his decision not to play on Yom Kippur during the pennant race of 1934, his second year in the league, Greenberg was as secular as most other children of Eastern European Bronx Jews. His parents were Orthodox, but it was an Orthodoxy already geared toward achieving American success for the children. No doubt they would have preferred Hank become a businessman or lawyer. They probably dismissed his passion for baseball as the instincts of a vilde khaye or crazed person: instincts that were to be avoided — at least until the Tigers offered Greenberg a $9,000 signing bonus, not an insignificant sum in 1929. The pride they learned to take in their son’s stature, from his rookie year in 1933 to his departure for the Army in 1941, as the most feared right-handed power hitter in the game was undoubtedly augmented by how Greenberg had made himself the highest-paid major leaguer of his time.

But it was his ability to hit a baseball, the supreme athletic achievement not only for me and other Bronx Jewish boys, but also for boys in Keokuk, Iowa, and in Savannah, Ga., that was important. By 1934, when Greenberg sat out Yom Kippur in the midst of a pennant race, “both Jews and non-Jews were beginning to see him as a kind of national Jew, a symbol.” I was 1 year old then, but by the time I was 5, that symbol had been passed on to me by a left-wing, trade-unionist, synagogue-scoffing uncle. It didn’t matter that Greenberg just wanted to play baseball. It was “his lot to play baseball in the most anti-Semitic period in American history” that made him important to his fellow American Jews. He had little use for Judaism as a religion. (His attempt to give his children a sense of the spiritual could have been taken out of a Marx Brothers movie. On Yom Kippur, rather than going to synagogue, he took them to the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.) Yet he was Jewish enough, however secular, to be a “fierce” Zionist, so fierce that it led to a split with one of his sons.

Kurlansky’s book is an excellent addition to the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. It is, I suspect, no accident that most of the titles, both those already published and the projected volumes, deal with secular Jewish lives. A few of those lives, like the one Kurlansky has given us in this well-written and unpretentious biography, may also speak of the need to hit. If so, let me end by noting that there are worse things than offering a tip of the hat to secular Jews, particularly those who can hit.

Leonard Kriegel lives and writes in New York. His last book was the memoir “Flying Solo” (Beacon, 1999), and he is currently completing work on a novel.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.