The book: “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War”
The author: Ron Kaplan
The vital statistics: Sports Publishing, 268 pages, $24.99, released today, April 25
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website
The pitch: In his 2013 collection “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die,” Kaplan’s only notation of a Hank Greenberg-related book is “The Story Of My Life,” which the Hall of Famer did with Ira Berkow in 1989. That was also the inspiration for the exceptional documentary nine years later by Aviva Kempner called “The Life And Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Kaplan’s “501” came out a month after the release of John Rosengren’s “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes,” and two years after Mark Kurlansky’s “Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One.”
With that in mind, the thing that compelled Kaplan, the force behind RonKaplansBaseballBookshelf.com and former editor for the New Jersey Jewish News, to re-examine the Greenberg experience through the prism of his 1938 pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record is how it would overlay what else was going on in the world. In particular, it was Hitler, just named Time magazine’s controversial choice for Man of the Year because of all the noise he made ramping up Germany for World War II, and the threat to the Jewish population, to which Greenberg belonged.
As Greenberg got closer to Ruth’s record of 60 homers, did anti-Semitism come into play? Were teams pitching around him? What did Greenberg sense publicly or say privately?
Was is more than a coincidence that a Sept. 20 column in the Chicago Heights Star concluded with a paragraph: “Note to State Department, U.S.: If the Nazis don’t behave, send Hank Greenberg over there to hit ‘em with a ball bat,” as Kaplan notes on page 138.
“I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler,” is a Greenberg quote that fits into Kaplan’s narrative for this project.
You need to transport yourself back to that time to understand. For example, it was the norm for players on opposing teams to scream ethnic slurs at each other to try to gain an edge, and Greenberg was an easy target. Even more than a decade after Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut.
As Kaplan culls the morgue of the Detroit Free Press to try to find headlines both from the news and sports sections that overlap what’s going on globally and locally, Greenberg becomes a beacon of hope for Jewish fans trying to prove that whatever is going on in Nazi Germany, it will not bring down their hero.
(And by the way, was Superman modeled after Greenberg in any way when the comic hero first came out in June of ’38? Wonder if Kaplan could have dove more into that interesting nugget)
In the end, Greenberg comes up two homers short of Ruth, and somehow finishes third in the AL MVP voting. Also leading the league with 143 runs and 119 walks, he would later tell Lawrence Ritter for the 1966 classic “The Glory of Their Times” that it was “pure baloney” opponents were purposely walking him as he got closer to the record. “The reason I didn’t hit 60 or 61 is that I ran out of gas.”
Kaplan gets into whether Greenberg was just being modest, but also cites a 2010 Howard Megdal column in the New York Times that suggests evidence based on retrosheet.org game logs that Greenberg’s religion “might” have been a component of the eventual 58 homers instead of 60.
“But by using the word ‘might,’ does Megdal somehow lessen the impact of his assertion?” Kaplan asks. “As Megdal alluded in the article, no one can never truly know what is in the heart, mind and/or soul of another man (discounting out-and-out lunatics like Hitler as his ilk) so it’s difficult to be able to say with 100 percent certainty one way or the other. And I admit my own limited in the appendix offers below is less of a definitive answer than a possible consideration. But perhaps it might serve to shed some light that, on the surface, there was nothing extraordinary about the way opponents pitched to Greenberg in the last few weeks of 1938. In the end, the reasons and analysis don’t matter. Hammerin’ Hank came up short. It was an exhausting experience, but at the end of the day it’s all relative, isn’t it? Compared to what Greenberg and the rest of the world would soon have to deal with, hitting a ball with a stick didn’t seem all that important.”
That’s an important conclusion Kaplan to arrive, and one we ultimately realize applies to almost anything else, before or after, that historic season.