● 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.