Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →