- Two Pioneers: How Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson Transformed Baseball—And America byQ Robert CCottrell
Baseball may once have been “America’s game” but, like the United States as a whole, its major leagues restricted full membership rights to whites, preferably white Christians. Debates concerning minorities’ place in the baseball universe mirrored, and sometimes anticipated, the civil rights movements that swept the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Robert C. Cottrell’s Two Pioneers offers solid biographies of two trailblazers on the road to sporting equality. His subjects, Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson, encountered and eventually overcame barriers to participation and acceptance in baseball’s major leagues.
Cottrell opens with a succinct historical overview of discrimination in baseball and in American society. His narrative touches on familiar landmarks, recounting the racist actions of Cap Anson, the emergence of the Negro Leagues, and the anti-Semitic blathering of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent. Here and throughout the book, Cottrell does a fine job of situating Greenberg and Robinson within a larger racial and religious context. He clearly charts the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s, wartime efforts to end segregation, and mass culture’s postwar depictions of Jews.
Hank Greenberg dominates Two Pioneers’ early chapters. The son of Romanian immigrants, Greenberg grew up in a secular, middle-class family. As a youth he idolized the New York Giants, who played at the nearby Polo Grounds. Baseball did not come naturally to Greenberg. As clumsy as he was big, he could hit a baseball a mile but struggled to field one hit a foot away from him. Several teams nevertheless pursued him. He ended up signing with the Detroit Tigers in 1930. After working hard to hone his skills in the minors, he cracked the major league squad in 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.
Greenberg, a non-practicing Jew, became a hero to many Jews the moment he made the Tigers’ roster. He excelled on the field despite hearing anti-Semitic catcalls from the stands and opposing benches. His massive bulk and home-run swing defied the stereotyped images of Jews common to that era. His decision to sit out a 1934 game played on Yom Kippur further elevated his status among Jews. Greenberg, flat feet and all, became the first star player to join the World War II-era military. He missed more than four seasons, returning from duty as a past-his-prime slugger who nevertheless compiled outstanding career stats.
Greenberg played his final season in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson entered the big leagues. Cottrell uses this moment of overlap to refocus his narrative on the extraordinary, multi-sport athlete from California (by way of Cairo, Georgia). As with Greenberg, knowledgeable readers will find few surprises in Cottrell’s survey of Robinson’s life. After a troubled youth, Robinson became a star at University of California at Los Angeles, excelling at football, basketball, and baseball. He endured numerous acts of racism while serving during World War II and faced a court martial for an incident involving a bus driver who ordered him to the back of the vehicle. [End Page 169]
At loose ends following his discharge, Robinson joined the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs. His story from there is well known—Branch Rickey challenging him to have the guts not to fight back, Southerner Pee Wee Reese refusing to sign Dixie Walker’s petition to keep Robinson off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ roster, Robinson overcoming racism to assemble a Hall-of-Fame career. Cottrell, as he does with Greenberg, also traces Robinson’s post-baseball life, exploring his various business ventures and support for the Civil Rights movement.
The dual biography is a tricky genre, especially when its protagonists intersect in only the most glancing way (literally, in this case, as Greenberg and Robinson collided at first base during a 1947 game). Two Pioneers works best as an introduction for the uninitiated; anyone acquainted with Greenberg or Robinson...