Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War by Ron Kaplan
In 1938, Hank Greenberg was in his tenth year with the Detroit Tigers. During the season, Greenberg, who happened to be Jewish, challenged the single-season home run record held by Babe Ruth. Even though Greenberg would fall two short of the sixty home runs Ruth hit in 1927, he seemed to be fighting for a larger cause as Adolf Hitler ruled Germany. In 1938, Germany hosted three other European leaders at his Führerhaus where each signed the Munich Agreement changing the course of history. That year Time Magazine named Adolf Hitler Man of the Year.
Baseball history can connect events on the diamond with changes in society and events in the world. The subtitle of the book, Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War, and the description of the book on the back cover would seem to indicate that Kaplan would relate the season of the professional life of a Jewish baseball player to the events in Europe as the Nazi Party discrimination and persecution of Jewish people, and others, developed and was codified in 1938. This quotation from Greenberg's autobiography, which appears just [End Page 230] before the preface, seems to support such as connection, "It was 1938 and I was not making good as a ballplayer. Nobody expected war, least of all the ballplayers. I didn't pay much attention to Hitler at first or read the front pages, and I just went ahead and played. Of course, as time went by, I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler." Kaplan includes brief descriptions of events in Europe in 1938, but they are not integrated into Greenberg's life or season other than chronologically. Kaplan, however, is not as successful in connecting the events of wartime to baseball as he is in describing Greenberg's baseball season.
Kaplan is best when describing the baseball player in pursuit of a home run record. In telling Hank Greenberg's story, Ron Kaplan recounts the 1938 baseball season day-by-day. The compensation received by players, the attendance figures, and personalities of other players. Beginning with spring training and moving through each month of the season, Kaplan follows Greenberg in his pursuit for sixty homeruns. The book also includes two chapters, "Beyond '38" and "The Final (Class) Act," and an Appendix which details the stats from the 155 games played by Greenberg during the season in a Game Log. This detail may become more than just an accounting of statistics when trying to answer the questions about how other players treated Greenberg as he approached the home run record. In the "September-October" chapter, Kaplan addresses this question directly. Kaplan quotes Greenberg who challenged the belief that other players worked to stop him because he was Jewish. Greenberg said, in fact, he felt support. "Some people still have it fixed in their minds that the reason I didn't break Ruth's record was, because I was Jewish, the ballplayers did everything they could to stop me … The fact of the matter is quite the opposite … The reason I didn't hit 60 or 61 is that I ran out of gas" (155). Kaplan references a 2010 New York Times article by Howard Medgal in which Medgal argues that statistics prove that American League pitchers walked Greenberg more than average. Kaplan notes that the detailed statistics of the Appendix may help make the case that Greenberg was not treated in an unusual way, but, in the end, compared to the world events, baseball was not all that important.
If religious discrimination was part of Hank Greenberg's experience, Kaplan does not make it a focus of the 1938 season. The first line of the introduction is the quotation, "I guess they just didn't want him to beat Babe Ruth's record because of the fact that he was a Jew" (xvii). That statement from teammate Billy Rogell to reporters at the end of the 1938 season, sets the stage for an analysis of the treatment of Hank Greenberg as a Jewish player. There are two dozen references to Greenberg's religion, but only a couple document mistreatment of Greenberg because of his religion and those are general comments about his days on minor league teams in Texas, North Carolina, and [End Page 231] Indiana or comments by teammates. Kaplan offers that Hank Greenberg chose to play in Detroit, a city with a newspaper which printed anti-Semitic articles and Henry Ford, a man who supported Hitler. Specific examples of discrimination against Greenberg in 1938 are lacking.
As a recounting of Hank Greenberg's moving through the 1938 baseball season, this book succeeds, but the consideration of the coming war in Europe and the analysis that Greenberg was a symbol of hope for Jewish people is not as effective.