The book: “Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One (Jewish Lives)”
The author: Mark Kurlansky
The vital stats: Yale University Press, 192 pages, $25
The pitch: The intent of the publisher’s series on “Jewish Lives” is to create what they call “interpretive biographies” on “eminent Jewish figures” in literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and arts and sciences. Authors are then matched up who can “elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the breadth and complexity of Jewish experience from antiquity through the present.”
As we found earlier with Jimmy Breslin’s Penguin series biography on Branch Rickey, this objective can really bring out some talented insights on subjects that often get buried in the weighted words of historians who don’t know what to include or delete from their tireless research.
So, before Bob Dylan is deconstructed by Ron Rosenbaum, or Leonard Bernstein by Allen Shawn, we have this Greenberg-Kurlansky matchup.
Sports, apparently, fits into one of those categories spelled out above, and Kurlansky, who last year put out a fascinating book on Dominican baseball players called “The Eastern Stars,” drew this assignment, culling through more than 30 books done either on or including Greenberg. A large part of that was Greenberg’s autobiography with Ira Berkow in the late 1980s as well as an extended interview he did the American Jewish Committee Oral History project.
What Kurlansky (right) seems to have rediscovered, and makes sure to repeat as much as possible in this otherwise modest book of less than 150 pages, is Greenberg didn’t want the weight of the Jewish culture to affect his baseball playing days. But it did. And mostly, he accepted that, based on trying to honor his parents.
Otherwise, his much debated decision in 1934 to not play on Yom Kippur, even thought he did play nine days earlier on Rosh Hashanah, goes far deeper than just his personal relationship with his cultural ties. Kurlansky examines more of the realities of the decision — the Detroit Tigers’ place in the American League standings in relationship to the New York Yankees, for one. Even so, when the 23-year-old in his second full major-league season decided it would be OK to sit out the game on Sept. 19, 1934, it defined his career “for the rest of his days” because he became “a national Jew, a symbol.” But, he was really “caught between the Jewish world and the baseball world, and there was no way to please everyone, not even to please all Jews.”
As Kurlansky put it on page 8: “When in the past five thousand years had the observance or nonobservance of one holiday by a single Jew attracted this much attention?”
Greenberg’s son, Steve, is another constant resource to put his father’s career in context. As he says: “If his parents had been dead or he had no family, he clearly would have played (on Yom Kippur).”
Kurlansky also writes on page 83: “Greenberg was never comfortable with the kind of adulation he received from the Jewish community. That was why he refused a dinner in his honor after Yom Kippur in 1934. He actually came to resent the neediness of his Jewish fans, and it took him many years to understand it.”
Kurlansky’s writing style quickly draws the reader into this man’s life, creating a “profoundly American story” as well as “a good Jewish story” from a man who called his Jewishness “an accident of birth.” In all, Greenberg “stood up for all people” and condemned any kind of prejudices, which he faced constantly from fans and opposing players.
Through it all, we also find out some little-known facts. Such as:
== Greenberg’s birthname was Hyman, aka Hymie. He had no middle name. He took the name Benjamin from his older brother so that he’d fit in with the other players who had three initials on their luggage. And “Henry Benjamin Greenberg” is the way his Hall of Fame plaque reads.
== When the American League added an L.A. expansion franchise in 1961, it “wanted Greenberg to be its owner,” Kurlansky writes. “Greenberg said that he would only sign on in partnership with (Bill) Veeck. But a tremendous fight broke out with the Dodgers, who have moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and did not want Veeck, the premier promoter, in their town with a competing team. Without Veeck, the Greenberg deal collapsed. The new team, the Angels, started play in 1961 despite the Dodgers’ objections.”
== Greenberg moved to Southern California for his later yeas, joining the Beverly Hills Tennis Club because the L.A. Tennis Club refused to taken in actors or Jews.
== Greenberg, interred in Culver City’s Hillside Cemetary with other noteworthy Jews as Al Jolson, has a headstone that reads: “Loved and Admired by So Many.” His memorial service was as L.A.’s Wadsworth Hotel, with actor Walter Matthau, who considered Greenberg his boyhood idol, as one of the main speakers, and became a Greenberg friend for many years.
How it goes down in the scorebook: There is some irony in that the publisher has set up a Facebook page for this book (linked here). Isn’t there?
If Greenberg didn’t want to be a hero, would he even want any part of a social media network?
It’s another of the small contradictions that create the aura around this small but mighty book that, in a quick read, really will change any preconceived notions one may have about the life and times of this great all-time slugger.