To his parents’ friends, he was “Mrs. Greenberg’s disgrace,” but to sports fans he is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Jewish baseball players of all time.
Long before Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg excited Jewish sports fans with his prowess on the baseball diamond. Playing in the 1930s during the most anti-Semitic period in United States history, Greenberg served as daily proof that Jews were neither foreign nor inferior, and could in fact even excel in that most American of all sports: baseball.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with John Rosengren, author of “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library, 2013).
The Jewish Press: Hank Greenberg is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Yet, you note in your book that fans in his day would routinely taunt him. Why?
Rosengren: Things were different back in the ‘30s and ‘40s when Greenberg played. First off, ethnic identification was much stronger. Also, anti-Semitism was much more widely practiced and socially acceptable. So Greenberg was singled out as a Jew and frequently derided with ethnic slurs and insults.
You write that many Jewish ballplayers at the time changed their last names to something that sounded less Jewish. Greenberg didn’t. Why?
Well, it wasn’t just ballplayers who changed their names. People in Hollywood and other professions changed their names too so they could become more socially acceptable.
Greenberg didn’t. He was proud to be a Jew. He was raised in an Orthodox household by his parents, and his heritage was very important to him as a young man. He’d go to temple on high holy days, and when he was in the minor leagues he lived in an Orthodox boarding house so he could eat the Seder meal on Passover. He didn’t want to deny who he was.
It’s interesting that of all cities to play in, Greenberg chose Detroit, home to some of America’s most notorious anti-Semites at the time.
It was certainly a hostile city. Henry Ford was the arch anti-Semite of America and his screeds against Jews in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, were quite frequent. At the same time, the Roman Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, was in suburban Detroit and had a radio show with an audience of ten million that eagerly listened to his rants against Jews.
Jews represented only five percent of Detroit’s population at the time, so there were a lot of people in Detroit who had never met or seen a Jew, so they didn’t have a point of reference to challenge these stereotypes until Hank Greenberg came along. He was 6’ 4”, 220 lbs. and as soon as he stepped on the field, he shattered any stereotype of Jews being weak or unathletic. Later on, he proved himself an intelligent, charming, charismatic guy and won over a lot of fans.
You write that Greenberg served as a tremendous source of pride to Jews. How so?
The ‘30s and ‘40s were very difficult times for Jews – not just in Europe but also here in the United States. Jews couldn’t practice at [many] law firms, couldn’t be treated at certain hospitals, and couldn’t attend the college of their choice. Greenberg actually had a scholarship to Princeton but wasn’t allowed to attend because the university had already fulfilled its Jewish quota, which was two percent. Additionally, there were ads in newspapers that said “gentiles only” and there were restricted communities where Jews could not live. The climate was very much against Jews.
And so at a time like this, Greenberg became a rallying point for Jews. They felt an affinity with Greenberg as one of their own and took a special pride in his accomplishments. If someone today tells you a certain baseball player is Jewish, you say, “Oh, nice,” but back then the fact that Greenberg was Jewish meant so much to people. Ethnic identification was much stronger then. The other night, I was in New York doing a book event and an elderly woman said to me, “We looked to him as such a hero.”
Interestingly, Greenberg wasn’t really comfortable at first in his role as a representative Jew, especially in 1934 when he was forced to decide whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah.