June 11, 2011
Hank Greenberg, Reluctant Jewish Hero: Despite His Inclinations, He Excelled as a Power Hitter, Soldier and Community Representative : a review of Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One
By Mark Kurlansky (Leonard Kriegel, June 08, 2011, Forward)
I worshiped Greenberg for the same reason I worshiped Barney Ross: They both could hit. Anti-Semitism during the 1930s and ’40s was viral, even in the Bronx. And for me, Greenberg, no longer slugging home runs for the Tigers but serving in the Army, embodied physical resistance to it. He was big, he was from the Bronx — and he was a Jew. One didn’t need to be a sabermetrician to rattle off his homers and batting averages through the ’30s — and he was a Jew. Greenberg, the two-time American League MVP, was no prima donna; in 1940, he agreed to switch to the outfield from first base for the good of the team, a move that resulted in the Tigers winning the pennant — and he was a Jew. He had come close to matching an already hallowed baseball statistic, Babe Ruth’s 60 homers in a season — and he was a Jew.
Like Ross, Greenberg embodied what — however politically incorrect the term may be — one can speak of as Jewish masculinity and toughness. And yet, as Kurlansky is at pains to point out, no man was more reluctant to serve as a Jewish example. Praised by Jew and gentile alike for his decision not to play on Yom Kippur during the pennant race of 1934, his second year in the league, Greenberg was as secular as most other children of Eastern European Bronx Jews. His parents were Orthodox, but it was an Orthodoxy already geared toward achieving American success for the children. No doubt they would have preferred Hank become a businessman or lawyer. They probably dismissed his passion for baseball as the instincts of a vilde khaye or crazed person: instincts that were to be avoided — at least until the Tigers offered Greenberg a $9,000 signing bonus, not an insignificant sum in 1929. The pride they learned to take in their son’s stature, from his rookie year in 1933 to his departure for the Army in 1941, as the most feared right-handed power hitter in the game was undoubtedly augmented by how Greenberg had made himself the highest-paid major leaguer of his time.
But it was his ability to hit a baseball, the supreme athletic achievement not only for me and other Bronx Jewish boys, but also for boys in Keokuk, Iowa, and in Savannah, Ga., that was important. By 1934, when Greenberg sat out Yom Kippur in the midst of a pennant race, “both Jews and non-Jews were beginning to see him as a kind of national Jew, a symbol.” I was 1 year old then, but by the time I was 5, that symbol had been passed on to me by a left-wing, trade-unionist, synagogue-scoffing uncle. It didn’t matter that Greenberg just wanted to play baseball. It was “his lot to play baseball in the most anti-Semitic period in American history” that made him important to his fellow American Jews. He had little use for Judaism as a religion. (His attempt to give his children a sense of the spiritual could have been taken out of a Marx Brothers movie. On Yom Kippur, rather than going to synagogue, he took them to the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.) Yet he was Jewish enough, however secular, to be a “fierce” Zionist, so fierce that it led to a split with one of his sons.
Posted by Orrin Judd at June 11, 2011 7:29 AM