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Rosengren’s superbly researched biography is easily the most comprehensive book ever written about the first Jewish player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and it nimbly separates fact from the many fictions and half-truths that have long surrounded the subject. From Greenberg’s days as a homesick minor leaguer through his rise to superstardom with the Tigers, his four-year stint in the U.S. Army Air Forces, his postwar comeback, and his tumultuous second career as a general manager and part-owner of the Cleveland Indians and, later, the Chicago White Sox (legendary baseball promoter Bill Veeck was his partner in both teams), Rosengren does a fine job of chronicling the triumphs, frustrations and controversies that studded his life and career. He also paints a vivid picture of the virulent prejudice that Jews faced in America of the 1930s, and illustrates how the handsome, heroic Greenberg almost single-handedly upended the popular stereotyping of Jews as cowardly weaklings and avaricious shylocks — and how he helped an entire generation of Jews assimilate into American life.
Still, the man himself remains elusive. Other than some occasional tension over his star status (or his high salary, or his Jewishness), Rosengren doesn’t give us much insight into Greenberg’s relationships with his teammates and fellow players, though he and Ted Williams do seem to have formed a friendship over their love of hitting. And for a player who bore the whimsical nickname Hankus Spankus, Greenberg mostly comes off here as introverted, hypersensitive and hot-tempered, though there are brief moments in the narrative — like the time in basic training where he’s caught speeding by police an hour and a half after his superior officer had checked him into bed — when a lustier, more fun-loving Hank peeks through.
That said, “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” is no hagiography, a la Jane Leavy’s “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy.” Rosengren doesn’t shy away from chronicling some of Greenberg’s less immaculate moments, like moodily refusing to sign autographs for young fans, accidentally breaking the arm of a girl he’s bedding, or (more ominously) working one off-season for Henry Ford, of all people, as a “special investigator” whose duties may have included spying on union supporters in Ford’s company. But while these fleeting glimpses of a more complex man behind the furrowed brow and bulging muscles pass by all too quickly, Rosengren ultimately makes a persuasive case for Greenberg’s greatness, both as a ballplayer and as a Jewish icon — the “hero of heroes.”
Dan Epstein is the author of “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s” (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010).