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.”
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.