October 20, 2018

Detroit ‘hero’ Hank Greenberg’s Jewishness

The big question in Detroit in the fall of 1934 had nothing to do with the troubled state of the world. Rather, the fans of the Detroit Tigers wanted to know whether their star first baseman, Hank Greenberg, was going to play on the Jewish High Holy Days. After all, the Tigers were in first place and they were contesting the New York Yankees for the pennant.

“The three Detroit dailies issued extra editions with updates every half hour,” John Rosengren writes in “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library: $26.95), a spirited and insightful biography of the first Jewish ballplayer to achieve iconic status. “ ‘Hank is headed for the synagogue;’ ‘Hank is headed for the ballpark.’ … Detroit baseball fans grumbled: ‘Rosh Hashanah comes every year, but the Tigers haven’t won the pennant since 1909.’”

Sometimes the narrative in Rosengren’s biography reads like a Jewish joke. One local rabbi ruled that the Talmud allowed Greenberg to play, but another rabbi read the same texts and came to a different conclusion.  Ultimately, he was forced to decide for himself.  “He stood, undressed and slowly put on his uniform,” Rosengren reminds us. When he hit a ball out of the park, the grateful fans shouted: “Happy New Year!”

Hank’s parents back in New York, Sarah and David Greenberg, were observant Jews from Romania. They expected their son — whom they variously called Hyman, Hymie or Hy, although “Henry” appeared on his birth certificate  — to put family, school and religion before sports. Of course, they wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. But Rosengren points out that Hank’s Jewish background was actually an advantage when he was looking for a way to break into pro ball.

New York’s team owners recognized that a significant fraction of their fans were Jewish, and they were actively recruiting Jewish players. “A home run hitter with a Jewish name in New York would be worth a million dollars,” John McGraw, the storied manager of the Giants, told the New York Tribune.  The Yankees courted Greenberg, but he ultimately accepted an offer of $9,000 from the Tigers and won his father’s blessing: “I thought baseball was a game,” said Pop. “But it’s a business — apparently a very good business. Take the money.” By the fall of 1934, he was playing first base for Detroit.

Detroit, of course, was the home of Henry Ford, whose Dearborn Independent served as an outlet for ugly anti-Semitic propaganda: “American baseball has passed into the hands of the Jews.” Detroit was “a lonely place for Hank Greenberg, the young Jewish transplant from the Bronx.” And yet, amid the alarming news about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s, Greenberg represented “the elusive Hebrew star,” as the American Hebrew wrote, “for whose discovery and acquisition John McGraw…spent fortunes in vain.”

“Hank Greenberg” is an inside-baseball book, and Rosengren expertly analyzes and explains Greenberg’s career on the field.  Like every baseball book, stats play a prominent role. But the author also captures the human drama in Greenberg’s life and career, and, above all, the dire political and cultural background against which the game of baseball was played in the 1930s and 1940s.

“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mighty figure and, in his image as a home-run slugger, a symbol of power,” writes Rosengren. “He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”

I started watching and playing baseball only after Greenberg’s career had ended, but I learned his name at an early age. Indeed, Hank Greenberg is still revered in Jewish circles.  Yet, as Rosengren points out in rich detail, Greenberg’s sense of Jewish identity had little to do with religious observance and much more to do with showing the world that Jews could achieve greatness in the national sport.

On Yom Kippur in 1959, for example, he told his young children that they would not be attending school on the Jewish holiday.  Rather than taking them to shul, however, he took them to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan.  “It was several years before I realized,” recalls his son, Steve, “that Yom Kippur was not a day that Jews went to the planetarium.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.