This is a very important book to read historically and about the life and times of Detroit star first baseman and outfielder, Hank Greenberg. In this well written bio, John Rosengren puts you back in a time period when the world was going mad with war clouds looming in Europe and Asia, people were starving due to the depression, and the United States was still a prejudiced nation besides the segregation of African Americans and Asians living in the country at the time during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In a time period where Hitler was thrashing the Jews of Europe, the United States had its own anti-Semitism problem with hatred against the Jews. Led by Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, two of the most notable pro-Nazi Germany supporters from the United States and both Anti-Semites, Rosengren parallels Hank Greenberg’s ascension in the big leagues as a national star and hero to the American Jews with the backdrop of Anti-Semitism he endured as a player in Major League Baseball.
Hank Greenberg was born in the Bronx, NY in a predominant Jewish part of NY City. Only when he leaves the comforts of home and crosses the country in the minors does Hank first experience anti- Semitism, its peak in the south during the 1930’s. Wherever, he goes, fans heckle him, opposing players want to hurt him and he finds out that a name like Greenberg stirs up controversy wherever he goes.
Then there were the major-league players, many of them uneducated Southerners, for whom Jew-baiting was a second national pastime. Greenberg heard ethnic slurs not only from the stands but also from opposing teams' dugouts. Mr. Rosengren's book contains a number of anecdotes about Greenberg facing down anti-Semites on the field and in the locker room. After taking abuse from the bench of the Chicago White Sox during a game in 1939, Greenberg walked into the Sox clubhouse and announced: "I want the guy who called me a 'yellow Jew bastard' to get to his feet to say it to my face." As Mr. Rosengren recounts: "No one moved. Hank walked slowly around the room and looked at each of them. . . . Not one of them dared stand up. Hank walked out, paused at the door to look back, then left."
When he does enter the big leagues, and the Tigers are in a Pennant race, Greenberg must decide whether to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish High Holiday ringing in the New Year in September. Everyone is divided amongst that in the Jewish communities. Should Hank play? Should he respect tradition? Even Rabbis have their opinions on what the good book says about that.
With his dedication and perseverance, Hank becomes one of the best hitters in the league and a spokesperson for the Jewish community. In 1937, Greenberg was voted to the All-Star Team. On September 19, 1937, he hit the first-ever homer into the center field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. He led the AL by driving in 183 runs (3rd all-time, behind Hack Wilson in 1930 and Lou Gehrig in 1931), and in extra base hits (103), while batting .337 with 200 hits. He was 2nd in the league in home runs (40), doubles (49), total bases (397), slugging percentage (.668), and walks (102), 3rd in on-base percentage (.436), and 7th in batting average (.337). Still, Greenberg came in only 3rd in the vote for MVP.
A prodigious home run hitter, Greenberg narrowly missed breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938, when he was again voted to the All-Star Team and hit 58 home runs, leading the league for the second time. That year, he set the major league record with 11 multi-homer games. Sammy Sosa tied Greenberg's mark in 1998.
More important, if people’s views on Jewish men as being quiet and weak, Hank Greenberg dispelled that view and became a hero for the Jewish community by his success in baseball.
Let’s put things in perspective to show how important was Greenberg’s contribution to baseball as a player and as a Jewish person.
Baseball trivia quiz:
(1) Name a Methodist first baseman who won the triple-crown. (2) Name a Baptist right-hander who led the National League in ERA in five different seasons. (3) Name two Catholic outfielders—one from each league—who hit more than 450 home runs and had lifetime batting averages above .330. Are you having trouble coming up with the names Jimmie Foxx, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Stan Musial? Maybe it's because the religion of athletes strikes you as superfluous? And so it should, unless they happen to be Jewish ballplayers and you happen to be Jewish.
Only among Jews is there a set of baseball cards, put out by the American Jewish Historical Society, devoted exclusively to Jewish players. Only Jews bother to discover, and then take exuberant pride in, the fact that such un-Jewishly named ballplayers as Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis are members of the tribe, by which I don't mean the Cleveland Indians.
Is there something a bit parochial and chauvinistic but also unconsciously condescending in this interest on the part of Jews in Jewish ballplayers? Samuel Johnson's remark about lady preachers and dogs that walk on their hind legs, that "it is not done well, but you are surprised to find that it is done at all," often, alas, applies to the delight that Jewish fans take in their athletes. This exaggerated interest is partly owing to the relative paucity of Jewish ballplayers who made it to the majors. Between 1871 and 2003, there were only 142 of them, which averages out to roughly one a year. Perhaps a dozen Jews are playing major-league baseball at present, the best among them being Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers' star left fielder.
Of the Jewish ballplayers who played major-league baseball, a small number were truly standouts; the Indians' third baseman Al Rosen and the Cubs' pitcher Ken Holtzman come to mind. Many more were journeymen, like the catcher Moe Berg, who was said to be able to speak six languages and was unable to hit above .240 in any of them.
Two Jews were genuinely great ballplayers. One is the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax, who between 1961 and 1966 compiled some of the most astonishing records in baseball; in three of those years he won the Cy Young Award and the triple- crown for pitchers: leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
The other is Hank (born Henry, called Hymie by his family) Greenberg, who played only nine full seasons in the majors and—owing to injury and the nearly four years he served in the Army during World War II—parts of three others. (As mentioned, Greenberg is best known for driving in 183 runs in 1937 (one short of Lou Gehrig's American League record), hitting 58 home runs in 1938 (two short of Babe Ruth's record) and twice winning the American League's Most Valuable Player award while playing for the Detroit Tigers.)
Yet Greenberg may be quite as famous for being Jewish as for what he did in the batter's box.
Undeniably Jewish by name and by countenance, keep in mind, Hank Greenberg was not avid in his religious practice. Though brought up in an Orthodox Jewish home, he was, as a Jew, more respectful than devout. Early in his career he did not play baseball on the Jewish high holidays, though he did so later. (Koufax, by contrast, never played on them, including famously choosing not to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series when it fell on Yom Kippur.) Greenberg's first wife, Carla Gimbel, was a nonpracticing Jew; his second wife was a Christian. He raised his own children without religious observance. Still, as a Jew in baseball in the 1930s, he was an anomaly. When an Irish cop once stopped him for speeding and asked what he did for a living, he answered that he was a baseball player, causing the cop to respond: "Who in the hell ever heard of a professional baseball player named Greenberg?"
Hank Greenberg was 30 when he was drafted into the Army in 1940 and 34 when he came back to baseball. He could have returned to baseball after a year but chose to serve until the war was over. He never saw action, but, unlike so many of the 470 major leaguers drafted during the war, who played on armed-services baseball teams, he had serious administrative positions, which he performed ably.
Greenberg's courage was called upon more during his baseball days than during the war. When he began his professional career, anti-Semitism, rife in American life, was especially virulent in Detroit, where Henry Ford published the Dearborn Independent. Ford had the Jew-bee in his bonnet. He blamed the advent of jazz ("Moron Music") on Jews and claimed that Jews were natural traitors: "The Jewish Associates of Benedict Arnold" was a characteristic Dearborn Independent headline. Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest and another professional anti-Semite, broadcast out of suburban Detroit.
One comes away from Mr. Rosengren's biography with a firm notion of Hank Greenberg as a decent human being, a man of integrity and honor, what Jews call a mensch. He seems only rarely to have been swept away by his own fame and good fortune. He was invariably kind to young fans. Traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, his final year in baseball, he tutored the rookie Ralph Kiner, who attributed much of his success as a slugger to Greenberg. He encouraged Jackie Robinson, when Robinson, under extreme pressure, broke the color line in major-league baseball that same year.
Would Hank Greenberg be as well-known today if he weren't Jewish? Although he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, his statistics, owing to his war-shortened career, are not as impressive as they might otherwise be. He hit 331 career home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .313, numbers that are respectable but less than dazzling. Statistically he resembles Johnny Mize and Chuck Klein, both deserving hall-of-famers but not the sort of ballplayers who get their biographies written. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, had Greenberg enjoyed a full career he would, to quote Mr. Rosengren, have ranked "26th all-time for home runs (502), 11th for RBI (1,869), and tied for 54th for runs scored (1,554)." The baseball sabermetrician Bill James believes that, given the poor quality of wartime pitching, had he not gone off to the Army, he would have hit more than 600 home runs. But all this is extrapolation, not reality.
On any all-time all-star baseball team one's first baseman would not be Greenberg but, indubitably, Lou Gehrig. Clumsy afield, neither would Greenberg find a place in the outfield. Hank Greenberg's place on this all-time team, for which he has no rivals in major-league baseball, would be that of designated mensch.
For anyone wanting a complete biography of one of the Golden Age of baseball’s true American heroes, you don’t want to overlook this book. Its importance is monumental both to baseball and cultural history.
Do yourself a favor, be a mensch and get this book about one of Baseball’s greatest mensch’s.