Hank Greenberg was not the first Jewish player in the Major Leagues, but he was the first Jewish superstar, the first of two Jews (with Sandy Koufax) in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
He endured anti-Semitic slurs from fans, opponents, and some teammates. It was different in tone and intent from the good-natured ethnic needling ballplayers enjoy today.
There have always been Jews in baseball. Most changed their names to something less Jewish-sounding to fit in and avoid anti-Semitism.
Greenberg kept his Jewish name, but did not intend to become an American Jewish hero. He became one in 1934, when he did not play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, observed with 24 hours of prayer and fasting.
A mythology grew up, with just a few grain s of truth, about how Jewish and how heroic he was. He never liked being a Jewish hero. or even a “Jewish ballplayer.” He preferred being known as a ballplayer who happened to be Jewish.
In Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One (Yale University Press, Jewish Lives Series, 2011), best-selling biographer and historian Mark Kurlansky examines the man, separates myth from fact, and puts them in historical context. The book shows us a real mensch, the nicest thing you can call a person in Yiddish. Greenberg needed no myth to be admirable.
Of all the heroic things Greenberg did on the field — in 1938, he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record all summer, and fell two short with 58 — he is best remembered for that one game he did not play.
Nearly 80 years later, my mother, whose seventh birthday was just a few days before that Yom Kippur, still remembers how “everybody” talked for weeks about whether he would play, should he play, would his choice be good or bad for the Jews, and how great it was that he chose not to play. Her parents were not observant Jews, and she was not interested in baseball. She lived in Baltimore, which did not even have a Major League team until the 1954.
But it was in the air so much everywhere that it made an impression on her that has lasted nearly eight decades.
Kurlansky says the 1930’s was the most anti-Semitic decade in US history, and Detroit, where New York-born Greenberg played for the Tigers, was home to the two loudest, most influential anti-Semites in the country, Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin.
Ford, the industrialist, published Hitler-like tracts about Jewish conspiracies to control the world. The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper he bought to promote his views, was nationally known for its anti-Semitic content.
Father Coughlin was the most popular radio preacher of the ‘30’s, and he regularly denounced Jews on his Sunday program. Today, public attacks like Ford’s and Coughlin’s come only from lunatic hate groups, not the popular media and respected, mainstream public figures.
Gentiles were almost as interested as Jews in whether Greenberg would play on the Holy Day. Edgar Guest spoke for most Americans in a poem in a Detroit newspaper:
“We shall miss him in the infield, and shall miss him at the bat/ But he’s true to his religion, and we honor him for that.”
The Detroit Free Press said Greenberg was “an orthodox Jew [who] practices his religion faithfully.
That’s the myth, and Greenberg was amused sometimes, and sometimes annoyed by it because it was false. Even today, Kurlansky says, many people say Greenberg would never play on Yom Kippur.
Kurlansky says Greenberg was a secular Jew who did not like or practice any religion because they caused wars. He sat out that game because his father asked him to, and the issue had gained so much notoriety. Prominent Jews were urging him to send a message and set an example for Jewish kids by not playing.
Ten days earlier, he had played on the Jewish New Year. Most rabbis said that was OK because Rosh Hashonah is a joyous holiday. But on Yom Kippur, rabbis agreed that Jews should not play baseball or do anything but pray and fast.
On Rosh Hashona, 1934, the Tigers were in a close pennant race with the Yankees, and could not spare their best player for one game. By Yom Kippur, the pennant was almost assured, so it was OK for Greenberg to miss a game.
He never got another chance to play on Yom Kippur. In 1935, the Tigers were back in the World Series, with Game Six scheduled for Yom Kippur. Greenberg announced he would play that day, but he broke his wrist in Game Two, and had to sit it out.
Another piece of the myth is that Greenberg sacrificed his best years, and volunteered to fight Hitler.
Actually, he was drafted in early 1940 for a six-month hitch as an infantryman. A few days after he finished, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He immediately volunteered for the Army Air Corps. If he had waited to be recalled by the Army, he would have gone back to his original unit. He wanted to serve his country, but not as a foot soldier in wartime, Kurlansky says, based on Greenberg’s unpublished autobiography and interviews with his children.
In one important sense, Greenberg really was a Jewish hero in that anti-Semitic decade. A big part of the anti-Semitic stereotype was that Jews were weak, cowardly, and lousy at sports. Children of Jewish immigrants were ashamed of that, and the popular idea that immigrants and their children were not real Americans.
Yet, here was this giant (6-foot-4) Jewish home run hitter excelling in the American game, which was much more important in everyday life than it is today. Every Jewish kid in the 1930’s walked taller because of him. Tony Lazzeri, a star infielder with the Babe Ruth Yankees, had the same effect on the children of Italian immigrants.
Greenberg was mostly unaware of the effect he had on Jewish kids until decades later, when he was still receiving dozens of letters a year from Jews saying how much he meant to them when they were growing up in the ‘30’s. According to his family, he finally became comfortable with the idea that his life did have a positive effect on Jews.
His 13-season batting average .313 on-base percentage of .412, and slugging percentage of .605 put him in a class with Ted Williams, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial, who all hit for power and average. Most players can do only do one or the other.
Kurlansky says he was a completely self-made player, not a great natural talent. He spent endless hours in Crotona Park near his home in the Bronx hitting pitches, perfecting his swing, paying neighborhood kids nickels to pitch and chase the balls after the other kids went home. As a big leaguer, he had one of the most perfect swings ever seen, an aesthetic experience, Kurlansky says.
Baseball was business to him, even as a kid playing in the park. He thought baseball, not higher education, which he tried for a semester, but did not like, was his best way out of the Bronx, into mainstream America.
When he left for the Army in 1940, he was the best player in baseball, Kurlansky says.
Jackie Robinson first met Greenberg at first base in 1947, Robinson’s rookie year, and Greenberg’s last. Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers that year; Greenberg, who was playing in the National League with the Pittsburgh Pirates, got a single. The two had a conversation at first base, at a time when few white players spoke to Robinson, and many called him names and tried to injure him.
In a locker room interview after the game, Robinson told reporters that Greenberg said to hang in there, that he was doing fine, and would make it. “Greenberg is a class act. Class shows, and it sticks out all over Hank Greenberg,” Robinson said that day.
Greenberg said the racist abuse Robinson endured was much worse than the anti-Semitism he faced. Both responded to the abuse by playing better and harder. In the film Jews and Baseball: A Love Story, Greenberg said he had to play better. “If you don’t, you’re a Jewish bum, not just a bum.”
Silence in the face of bigotry of was against both their natures, but thought the best way to get back at the bigots by playing hard and defeating them on the field.
After baseball, Bill Veeck brought Hank into management. Veeck’s brilliance as an iconoclast and showman in baseball overshadows the fact that he integrated the American League just a few weeks after Robinson joined the Dodgers, and his Indians and White Sox were the only teams to beat the Yankees for the pennant between 1948 and 1964. Greenberg assembled the players on those teams.
Often, public figures don’t live up to their myths. Kurlansky says the real Greenberg was as good or better than the mythical Jewish hero.