I’m an avid reader of Jewish weeklies and baseball-related books. If I think a book is worth reading a second time sometime down the road, it ends up on my crowded baseball bookshelf. In the past few years, only about a third of the books I’ve read have been keepers.
I read one of them just recently: Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War by Ron Kaplan. Kaplan does an excellent job of chronicling Greenberg’s 58 home runs in 1938 amidst the sad rise of Hitler and Nazism.
I met Kaplan about 10 years ago at the New York Yankees fantasy camp. I was brought in as a speaker, and Ron, who worked as sports and features editor for the New Jersey Jewish News, came to cover the campers and former Yankee stars.
Ron grew up in Brooklyn and saw his first major league game with the Prospect Park Jewish Center day campers at Shea Stadium in 1967. He lived in several Jewish neighborhoods – Oceanhill, Brownsville, Crown Heights, and Flatbush – and now lives in New Jersey, where he is working on several projects, including an upcoming baseball book.
The inside jacket of Hank Greenberg in 1938 reads: “While Greenberg was battling at the plate, his people overseas were dealing with a completely different battle. Adolf Hitler, who had been chancellor of Germany since 1933, had taken direct control of the country’s military in February of ’38. He then began his methodic takeover of all neighboring countries, spreading Nazism and entering the early stages of World War II and the Holocaust.”
In ‘38, Hank Greenberg was starting his sixth season as the regular first baseman of the Detroit Tigers. He was coming off a superstar 1937 season in which he batted .337, blasted 40 home runs, and led the league with a hefty 183 runs batted in – to this day the third highest RBI total in major league history.
Greenberg was the biggest Jewish hero in America at the time, but the Tigers actually had a second Jewish player in 1938. Harry Eisenstat had a new bride and a new home in Detroit. The former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher married Evelyn Rosenberg and bonded with Greenberg who took the 22-year-old pitcher under his wing and introduced him to Detroit and its Jewish community.
Eisenstat won nine games during the season, including two in one day. Brought in to relieve the starting pitcher in both games of a doubleheader, Eisenstat was credited with the victories as Greenberg hit two home runs in one game and one more in the other.
“Lock yourselves in your rooms tonight, fellas,” Tigers manager Mickey Cochrane jokingly told his players after the game. “The Jews of Detroit will be going crazy.”
On the other side of the ocean, though, the Jews of Europe were going crazy with fear. After Germany annexed Austria in March, many Jews were beaten, robbed, murdered, or deported. Czechoslovakia was partitioned, and anti-Jewish laws were passed. Many Jews in Germany were starving as non-Jewish stores refused to allow Jews to purchase food. Jewish-owned stores were spray-painted, vandalized, and looted.
Many Jews were frantically trying to get out of Germany. Jews who could leave Germany were only allowed to take 10 Reichsmarks – worth about $4. They were forced to surrender property, savings, and valuable possessions.
Back in American baseball stadiums, Jewish baseball history was made between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Giants on August 20, 1938, when three Jewish players hit home runs – the only time in baseball history this happened. Catcher Harry Danning homered for the Giants, and outfielder Morrie Arnovich and first baseman Phil Weintraub homered for the Phillies. The Giants won 8-7.
The big bat of Hank Greenberg accounted for nine home runs that August and 12 more in September. However, with five games to go in the season, Greenberg – who had 58 home runs at that point – did not hit any more, falling two homers shy of the 60 mark Babe Ruth set in 1927.