Hank Greenberg Biography Invokes Legendary Jewish Slugger’s Magic

April 17, 2013 6:33 pm 2 comments

The cover of Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. Photo: Penguin Group.

SAN DIEGO—In front of Hank Greenberg is the pitcher, menacing, mean, wanting to strike him out and make him look like a fool. Behind him, what seems like a stadium full of anti-Semites.

This is Detroit in the 1930s, home of Henry Ford, who churns anti-Jewish hatred in his Dearborn Independent newspaper with the same kind of assembly-line speed that has made his automobile factories famous. Adding to the feeling of discomfort for Greenberg, Detroit is also the home of the Jew baiter and hater of radio fame, Father Charles Coughlin.

Be that as it may, Detroit is where Greenberg, the big and tall, flat-footed Jewish boy from the Bronx, was destined to play in Major League Baseball. And if Greenberg couldn’t make believers out of all the fans, at least the thunder in his bat could win the respect of most of the American League’s pitchers, except one—fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller—who somehow could always speed rockets past Greenberg, even in the best of his slugging years.

John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes is a biography released in March 2013 that tells about baseball with all the authority of a Feller pitch smacking into a catcher’s mitt, and depicts Greenberg’s steadfastness amid the rise of Nazism in Germany and its sympathetic movements in the United States with the drama of a come-from-behind, bases-loaded Greenberg homerun.

The book tells how children of Jewish immigrants were galvanized by the exploits of one of their own, how Greenberg showed his coreligionists in those pre-World War II years that one could be both Jewish and 100-percent American.

Greenberg hit 58 homeruns in a single year, helped Detroit win the World Series twice, claimed some of baseball’s most vaunted hitting titles—and did so under the microscope, enduring constant taunts from haters, an ordeal that in a magnified form Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, would later endure. To Greenberg’s credit, he was one of the few baseball players to encourage Robinson, urging him to hang in and to ignore the taunts. As the movie “42” makes clear, Robinson did that, and more.

It’s easy—as the subtitle of this book suggests—to glorify Greenberg as a hero, but Rosengren makes it clear that, notwithstanding the large shadow he cast, Greenberg was made from mortal flesh. He had thin skin, an inflated ego, and an unthinking tongue.  Yet, for all that, he was known as an honest man who made up for natural deficiencies by spending more time at batting and fielding practice than perhaps any other big name in baseball. He used to pay batboys and neighborhood kids to shag balls for him before his games. He took batting practice before batting practice.

Greenberg also got into famous contract disputes with management, recognizing that the active life of a baseball player is short indeed, and one ought to make money while one can. But later, when he was in baseball management himself, he became known for his stinginess during contract negotiations. So maybe it wasn’t the principle, but the competition of making deals that really drove Greenberg.

When World War II came, Greenberg didn’t volunteer, but he didn’t avoid the draft either. He wounded his public standing when it was leaked that he had written to his draft board that he’d like to be deferred to continue playing baseball during the 1942 season, and probably as a result of the publicity his letter caused, the draft board felt it had no choice but to draft him right away.  He went into the U.S. Army, rose through the ranks to sergeant, eventually went to officer’s school, and ended the war as a captain. He spent a good part of the war in the Pacific Theatre.

When Greenberg came back to baseball after the war, his body aching, he was getting too old for the game, but helped the Tigers win the 1945 American League pennant with a grand slam. In the World Series, however, his time away from baseball was betrayed by sloppy defensive work. Nevertheless, The Tigers won.

In the 1946 offseason, Greenberg eloped with his first wife, a divorced heiress to the Gimbels Department Store fortune, Mrs. Caral Lasker. The wedding was performed in the resort town of Sea Island, Ga., where the surprised justice of the peace, Edwin C. Dart, learned only after the ceremony from telephoning reporters how famous was the couple whose knot he helped tie.

The Greenbergs had three children, but their marriage did not last—conflicting schedules and different interests pulled them apart. Hank Greenberg later married the divorcee Mary Joe DeCicco, who would be at his bedside when he died in 1986.

Although he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, and was a hero to the Jewish people, somewhere along the line—perhaps during the war—Greenberg lost interest in organized religion. He did not belong to a synagogue, and his children were raised with little knowledge of Judaism.

In author Rosengren’s opinion, “Hank Greenberg remains the greatest Jewish baseball player—nay, athlete—of all time. No other Jew has achieved his athletic prowess and cultural significance.”

Fans of Jewish Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, of a later generation, might disagree, but such a debate is unlikely to change minds on either side of the issue. Both men unquestionably were great stars, who delighted fans and gave the Jews among those fans an extra measure of nachas.

Book information: Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, by John Rosengren, New American Library © 2013; ISBN 978-0-451-223576-3; 392 pages including photos, index, and bibliography, $26.95.

Donald H. Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World, where this story originally appeared. He may be contacted at donald.harrison@sdjewishworld.com.

2 Comments

  • did the reviewer actually read the book? “Drafted in 1940, the first American League player to be drafted, …Greenberg was not bitter, however, stating, “I made up my mind to go when I was called. My country comes first.” After most of the 1941 season, however, he was honorably discharged when the United States Congress released men aged 28 years and older from service, being released on December 5, 1941, two days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Greenberg re-enlisted and volunteered for service in the United States Army Air Forces, again the first major league player to do so. He graduated from Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the USAAF. Greenberg served 45 months, the longest of any major league player.”

  • I can’t attest to his Jewishness, but I sometimes had the privilege of lunching with a member at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club back in the 60′s and it seemed preponderently Jewish in its membership. He seemed huge and a famous Jewish actor, equally huge, both seemed to lumber gracelessly around the lunch room. Gilbert Roland, certainly not Jewish was there too and amazingly youthful.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.