Monday, April 15, 2013

Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren

Hank Greenberg did not set out to be an icon for his faith. Not devout and very private, he said little about being Jewish, but being 6' 4" and named Greenberg, he could not help being noticed at a time when there were very few Jewish baseball players. The 1930s were also a time of heightened anti-Semitism. While only a few Americans openly supported Adolf Hitler's suppression of German Jews, dislike and distrust of American Jews was widespread. In Greenberg's early years with the Detroit Tigers, some of his teammates were cold, and many opposing players were vicious. When he debated sitting out games on Jewish holidays, some newspaper columnists denounced him.

Only with quiet, steady play and delivering winning hits did Greenberg earn fans. In Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, author John Rosengren recounts how the tall first baseman became the key player of the Tigers in 1934, when he hit 63 doubles and drove in 139 runs in only his second full season with the team. In 1938 he challenged Babe Ruth's season record by hitting 58 home runs. In 12 seasons with the Tigers, he led them to the World Series four times. He spent one final year with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Greenberg's career was shortened by the U.S. involvement in World War II. He was one of the first players drafted into military service, inducted in spring 1941 long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He rose in rank from private to captain and was the commanding officer for the 58th Bombardment Wing's base in China. He missed over four season's worth of games at peak of his career, having led the American League in doubles, home runs, and RBIs in the season before his military service began.

After retiring as a player, Greenberg became a baseball executive. According to Rosengren, he was just as tough in negotiations of players' salaries as management as he had been a player. He was in some ways, however, still sympathetic to players and was an early advocate for ridding baseball of the reserve clause that bound players to teams. He also helped the Cleveland Indians add their first black players.

Rosengren's biography of Greenberg is a traditional birth to death account, admiring but frank about some of the player's shortcomings. The bulk of the text covers Greenberg's years as a player, satisfying the interest of the sports fan, but it is not a game-by-game account. Rosengren highlights Greenberg's life and takes much effort to place him in the context of his community and culture. You do not have to be a sports fan to enjoy this biography.

Rosengren, John. Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. New American Library, 2013. 392p. ISBN 9780451235763.

In his final years, Greenberg recorded the contents of what became Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life, were edited by veteran sports writer Ira Berkow. John Rosengren praises the book for its candor and feeling but warns that it includes numerous factual errors.

If you enjoyed Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, here are books that you might enjoy:

Sandy Koufax by Jane Leavy - Koufax was a high profile Jewish player in the 1950s and 1960s. Like Greenberg, he sat out some games on Jewish holidays, including an important World Series game. He retired in his prime, walking away from what was at the time a large contract, to protect the health of his arm.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Brandt - Aaron played and lived baseball much the way Greenberg did, never relaxing, carry his teams through success and failure. Like Greenberg, Aaron received death threats when he chased a Babe Ruth home run record.

Two Pioneers: How Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson Transformed Baseball - And America by Robert Cottrell - When Greenberg and Robinson collided at first base on a play in 1947, the former made sure the latter knew it was not intentional. Both withstood prejudicial abuse to become star players.

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