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.