The Hank Greenberg statue as it sits outside Comerica Park in Detroit.
The book: “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes”
The author: John Rosengren
The vital stats: Penguin, 392 pages, $26.95
Find it: At Barnes & Noble, Powells, author’s website or publisher’s website
The pitch: As a follow up to Thursday’s “American Jews & America’s Game,” we have more (again) on the former Tigers’ slugger who, when we last looked it up, wasn’t keen on being known as a hero.
Mark Kurlansky’s interesting take on Greenberg from 2011 gave us the impression that he was “the quintessential secular Jew, and to celebrate him for his loyalty to religious observance is to ignore who this man was.” The title included the headline: “The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One.”
Other approaches to Greenberg’s life — his own autobiography with Ira Berkow, reissued in 2009, for example, along with the acclaimed documentary on Greenberg from 2001 — give the same impression.
As the Angels start a three-game series against Greenberg’s former team this weekend in Anaheim, we’ll divert from the usual book review here to allow Rosengren, who used 100 books as a reference in his bibliography, to explain his approach from a recent e-mail exchange we had:
“I wanted to do the definitive biography of Greenberg. Two previous books were filled with inaccuracies. I wanted to set the record straight and tell the full story of Greenberg’s life in an engaging narrative. That spurred me to dig where others hadn’t — Greenberg’s military records, FBI files, Tiger archives, court documents, MLB daily logs, AL salary records, Hillerich and Bradby company files, etc. That, in addition to scores of interviews, hundreds of newspaper articles, videos, magazine articles, etc. You can see that in the 15 pages of the book’s bibliography.”
What new things Rosengren says he has uncovered:
• Greenberg was more observant as a young man than many people give him credit for — he sought out matzo at Passover, attended shul on his own and spent the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah 1934 in the synagogue.
• He did surveillance for Henry Ford, who paid him to “investigate subversive activities of individuals against the Company.”
• Greenberg got only $25 for his Louisville slugger contract with Hillerich & Bradsby, not $200 or $500 as mentioned in other tellings of the story.
• After Greenberg rebroke his wrist in 1936, the Tigers drafted a letter for Greenberg to sign as the author that would put him on the voluntary retired list, meaning team owner Briggs wouldn’t have to pay his salary (this after Greenberg had held out for a raise that spring), though they never showed the letter to Greenberg.
• When Hank asked to be considered Class 2 on his draft questionnaire — meaning he wished to be able to continue playing ball instead of being drafted without America being at war — he set off a national debate about an individual’s right to pursue his personal fortune in a capitalist economy against the patriotic duty to serve the common good in a democracy.
• He got custody of his three children after his divorce from Caral because she was having an affair.
• As a visionary, he provided MLB commissioner Bud Selig with the inspiration for inter-league play.
As for how Greenberg sits in the pantheon of Jewish heroes, especially those who hold Sandy Koufax to such high standards in L.A.:
Hank Greenberg lost four years of his major-league career while a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre.
“While some might want to include Lou Boudreau, Shawn Green or Al Rosen, the argument about who gets the title of Greatest Jewish Ballplayer Ever is strictly between Greenberg and Koufax.
“Over 12 seasons, Koufax was a six-time All-Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner and MVP once. In nine full seasons, Greenberg was a five-time All-Star and twice MVP.
“Koufax had a 10.3 WAR in 1963 and 10.00 in 1966. Greenberg had a 7.5 in 1937 and 7.4 in 1938, but Koufax’s career WAR is only 50.3 to Greenberg’s 55.1.
“Koufax had six mediocre years and six amazing years. Greenberg was consistently great his entire career.
“I think it comes down to whether you think a pitcher is more important than a daily player, but I have to cast my vote for Greenberg.”
So do Greenberg’s accomplishments often get lost in the fact he’s often referred to as this “Jewish hero”?
“I think the Jewish part of Greenberg’s story, which is what makes his story so compelling — the guy was enormously significant in his times, perhaps the most important American Jew of the 20th century — does at times overshadow his accomplishments on the field. He was a great player: 58 home runs in 1938, 183 RBI in 1937, sixth all-time for power average, ahead of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Mickey Mantle.
“Greenberg averaged .92 RBI per game, tying him for most all-time with Lou Gehrig and Sam Thompson. Greenberg and Babe Ruth are the only players to collect at least 96 extra-base hits in four different seasons.
“Anyone of those accomplishments would mark Greenberg for greatness, but consider them altogether — he was a truly amazing ballplayer.”
And to Rosengren’s credit, all of this is laid out in a very comfortable read, not preachy, not professorial, not littered with statistical reconstruction based on new SABR measurements.
Far more comes out than what small information we gleaned from the Kurlansky book
about how Greenberg thought in 1960 that he would be the head of the new Los Angeles Angels team, with the blessing of league officials. He went to L.A. in November, ’60, and asked for a two-year lease for the Coliseum to work on dates available for the ’61 season. He also got Del Webb, the Yankees owner and a stadium developer, to have a new stadium build for the team near the freeway, close to Wrigley Field.
But Walter O’Malley opposed the competition, especially since it involved Greenberg’s partner, C. Arnholt Smith, a banker who owned the San Diego Padres and opposed O’Malley’s purchase of Chavez Ravine for Dodger Stadium.
Baseball commissioner Ford Frick sided with O’Malley because, as Rosengren writes, “Frick lacked the cojones to oppose the most powerful man in baseball. Rather than grovel before O’Malley himself, Hank withdrew his bid for the Los Angeles club. In December, the American League owners backed the singing cowboy Gene Autry and Bob Reynolds … and rent the Dodgers’ new stadium for their games … O’Malley withdrew his opposition.”
Did it have anything to do with Greenberg, who found he had some doubters when he was the general manager of the Cleveland Indians earlier, having to be Jewish?
Bill Veeck later campaigned for Greenberg as the new commissioner in 1965 when Frick retired. It didn’t happen. Greenberg’s name came up again in 1968. O’Malley pushed for Bowie Kuhn. Writer Jerome Holtzman pushed for Greenberg. It didn’t happen.
“In retrospect,” Rosengren writes, “people like Ralph Kiner, former AL president bobby Brown and current commissioner Bud Selig think Hank would have been a terrific commissioner. … ‘He was very progressive in a sport that was very cautious (said Selig). I’m trying to be kind in how I saw that. He would have been marvelous as a commissioner.”
Greenberg died of cancer in 1986, three years after the Tigers finally retired his number. The family had a memorial service at the Wadsworth Theater in L.A. Greenberg’s autobiography came three years later, written by Ira Berkow, “frought with inaccuracies,” notes Rosengren, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
The truths will always set you free when you’re trying to correct history of a man’s baseball accomplishments. More authors should have that focus instead of just trying to reshuffle the files and present a rosy narrative of a subject just to appeal to the masses who already have invested a life-long period of hero-worshiping in the process.
Hank Greenberg, right, has an admirer in John F. Kennedy, a candidate for the U.S. Congress here in 1946, pictured with the Red Sox’s Ted Williams, left, and rookie Eddie Pellagrini.
More to know:
== Meet Rosengren at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend (Saturday and Sunday) at USC. He will be part of a panel discussion called “Great Balls of Fire: Sports and Sports Writing” on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. The review by Chris Erskine of the L.A. Times is related to the Festival.
== Rosengren’s conversation with Ron Kaplan.
== A Wall Street Journal review
== A review in New York Newsday, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. and MinnPost.com.