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A Hero When Jews Desperately Needed One: An Interview with Hank Greenberg Biographer John Rosengren


John Rosengren

John Rosengren

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.

Well, he’s this young man. He promised his parents he wouldn’t play and yet his team was in a pennant race against the Yankees and needed him. He was a very private man and it was a personal decision, yet it got thrust into the public spotlight. People around the country were sending him telegrams or letters with advice. Rabbis were telling him to play or not to play while the owner of the Detroit Tigers called him and said, “We really need you to get in there today.”

Hank Greenberg

Hank Greenberg

He ended up playing on Rosh Hashanah and hit two home runs, carrying the team to a 2-1 victory. But afterwards he went back to his hotel and received phone calls from people complaining about him playing and telegrams from rabbis saying this is going to make it hard for kids who want to observe their faith.

He was 23 years old, and that’s a lot of pressure to carry. He just wanted to be an American and to be able to do this thing that he was good at. Instead he became a Jewish ballplayer and representative of the Jews. He knew that was a big load to carry but he grew into it, came to accept it, and I think in the end did the Jewish people very proud as their standard- bearer.

Jews apparently were especially proud of his decision to quit baseball and enlist in the U.S. Army in 1941.

Greenberg was the first major leaguer to re-enlist after Pearl Harbor was attacked, even though he had just been honorably discharged two days earlier, on December 5. Jews took a special pride in his patriotism. He also really won over the admiration of all Americans for his willingness to set aside his personal career to fulfill his patriotic duty.

Greenberg was baseball’s best player at the time. He was the 1940 American League most valuable player, and he was the highest paid ballplayer in the game.

Nowadays, a great many parents encourage their children to pursue sports. Greenberg’s parents, though, did not. They wanted him to attain a college degree instead.

His parents came over trying to escape persecution and economic hardship in Europe. They came to America, the land of opportunity, wanting to have a better life for their children, and they saw college as the gateway for that. So they wanted Hank to go to college, become a professional, and have a good life. They saw baseball as a “bum’s game.” He was considered “Mrs. Greenberg’s disgrace” for playing baseball.

They didn’t understand the game. It’s like, “Why are all these grown men chasing this ball around a field?”

For some people, Greenberg is a Jewish baseball player. As someone who’s not Jewish, what attracted you to his story?

It was this story of an American hero, a cultural icon that attracted me. As an author, I’m always looking for stories of substance and social significance, and in Greenberg’s story I found that. He transformed the way that gentiles viewed Jews, and transformed the way Jews viewed themselves.

You’ve called Greenberg the greatest Jewish baseball player of all time. What about Sandy Koufax?

Sandy Koufax played once every four days. Hank Greenberg played every day. Also, Greenberg was consistently good throughout his career while Koufax had six years when he wasn’t very good.

You write in the book that 90-year-old Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner – who has been announcing New York Mets baseball games since the team’s founding in 1962 – was mentored by Greenberg in 1947. Can you elaborate?

When Greenberg arrived in Pittsburgh for his final season in 1947, one of the first things he did was befriend Kiner. Greenberg mentored him as a hitter and interceded on his behalf with management. Kiner, who had won the NL home run crown with 23 dingers the year before he met Hank, jacked 51 in ‘47 and won six more consecutive home run titles.

Late in Kiner’s career, when Greenberg was general manager of the Indians, he gave Kiner a spot on his team. Kiner remained forever grateful for Greenberg’s friendship. Thrice he asked Greenberg to be his best man. Hank finally [gave in] the third time, saying he didn’t want to jinx Kiner’s new marriage.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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One Response to “A Hero When Jews Desperately Needed One: An Interview with Hank Greenberg Biographer John Rosengren

  1. Good talking to you, Elliot. Just to clarify, Greenberg did serve as Kiner's best man the first two marriages but when Kiner asked him a third time, Hank finally begged off, saying he didn't want to jinx another marriage.

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