- Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One
Right-handed slugger Hank Greenberg has drawn a tremendous amount of attention recently as the subject of biographies, children’s books, as well as a multiple-award-winning documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (directed by Aviva Kempner, 1998). Unlike previous works on Greenberg, this one situates him within Jewish sports history. This volume is a part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, an ambitious series first appearing in 2010 that includes volumes on figures from Freud to Gershwin, from King Solomon to Bob Dylan. Acclaimed author Mark Kurlansky has published books on a variety of subjects, including food, history, Judaism, and baseball (last year’s The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris), the latter two proving his suitability to tackle a project like this one.
So how does the book compare vis-à-vis The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg? This book corrects the arguably hagiographic nature of the documentary (not to mention the children’s books). Kurlansky seeks to distance the real Greenberg from the mythical one, correcting some of the popular myths surrounding his status as a Jewish hero. So much was made then (as now) that Greenberg observed Yom Kippur in 1934 instead of playing, even though his Detroit Tigers were in the pennant race; in fact, the team already had a comfortable lead and practically had the pennant in hand. The author even goes so far as to question his subject’s status as a war hero, while still acknowledging that Greenberg was [End Page 353] the first active major leaguer to (re)enlist after Pearl Harbor, even though he had already missed most of the 1941 season after being drafted the previous year. He eventually missed almost five seasons due to the war. Kurlansky notes that no other ballplayer was away from the game so long and still able to come back.
The strength of the book lies in its history of Jews in sports. A brief survey of antiSemitism in America is also provided, particularly as it was manifested in the 1930s. The city of Detroit, which was Greenberg’s home for almost his entire career, was considered in the 1930s as perhaps the most anti-Semitic city in America, the home of famed antiSemites Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, and a far cry from the Jewish neighborhoods in which Greenberg was raised. Kurlansky alternates between presenting a typical biography of an individual and enlarging the scope, the tradition in which Greenberg entered.
He was not able to finish his career in Detroit, however, as he was traded to Pittsburgh for the 1947 season, his final one. A major omission in this account occurs in the story of the trade—that Greenberg’s trade was spurred on by a photograph of him in a Yankees uniform, which he was forced to wear in a charity game—an incident recounted in Kempner’s documentary. The end of Greenberg’s playing career did not signal the end of his involvement with baseball. He became a part owner and later general manager of the Cleveland Indians, who signed more African-American players than any other team during his tenure. In the end, Greenberg’s influence as an owner seems to get short shrift in this account, as in the documentary.
The epilogue is devoted to Sandy Koufax whose decision not to pitch on Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur had a much larger impact on his team as a whole, but “it wasn’t a response to Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler” (p. 148). The book concludes with the mention of the experiences of contemporary Jewish players, such as Kevin Youkilis, who face little discrimination in today’s game, supposedly because of Greenberg’s legacy: “It is in part thanks to Hank Greenberg that today’s Jewish players no...