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 firstname.lastname@example.org.