Was Baseball Great Hank Greenberg Even Braver Than Sandy Koufax?

Detroit's Hero Fought Yankees and Anti-Semitism

Ford Tough: Among the surprising facts unearthed about Hank Greenberg was that he worked as an investigator for Henry Ford.
getty images
Ford Tough: Among the surprising facts unearthed about Hank Greenberg was that he worked as an investigator for Henry Ford.

By Dan Epstein

Published April 05, 2013, issue of April 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes
By John Rosengren
New American Library, 400 pages, $26.95

On October 6, 1965, Sandy Koufax sat out the first game of the World Series in observance of Yom Kippur. By putting the holiest day of his faith before the most important event of the most popular sport in America, the best pitcher of his era cemented his status as an American Jewish icon. Nearly 50 years later, Koufax’s decision to spend the Day of Atonement in a synagogue rather than on the mound remains a compelling cultural touchstone for American Jews — even ones who don’t follow baseball — and an inspiring example of Jewish pride.

But with all due respect to “The Left Arm of God,” Koufax’s Game One opt-out was pretty much chopped liver compared with the conundrum that Hank Greenberg faced on Rosh Hashanah in 1934. When Koufax sat out Game One of the World Series, he did so with the full support and acceptance of his teammates, as well as with that of the majority of his fans. Koufax had the good fortune to pitch in a city and era where both Judaism and expressions of personal freedom were at least, if not always fully understood, generally accepted by the cultural mainstream. Koufax was also a fully established superstar; with four no-hitters, three pitching Triple Crowns, two previous World Series victories and numerous awards and trophies already to his credit by October 1965, his skill, fortitude and personal makeup were all well beyond reproach.

Hank Greenberg had no such support or reputation to fall back on. In September 1934, The Detroit Tigers — who hadn’t been to a World Series since 1909 — were desperately trying to hold off the New York Yankees in the American League pennant race, and Greenberg’s was one of the most consistently productive bats in the Tigers’ lineup. The big first baseman was playing in just his second full season as a major leaguer; though already an immensely popular player in Detroit, he’d yet to stockpile the sort of achievements and accumulated goodwill that would allow him any sort of personal latitude in terms of putting his faith before baseball.

His teammates, the Detroit media and the majority of the team’s fans were all insistent that Greenberg play baseball on Rosh Hashanah; to do otherwise would be seen as nothing less than a dereliction of duty.

But as John Rosengren recounts in his new book, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes,” Greenberg’s Rosh Hashanah conflict was more complex than just a personal matter of faith versus sport.


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!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • 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.