“Israel didn’t exist then. Hank Greenberg did. He was the equivalent to the state of Israel.” That quote sums up why so much has been written about Greenberg. After all, “Hankus Pankus” was a Hall of Fame slugger, but really no more than the third-best first baseman of the 1930s, no more an unforgettable player than, say, his Detroit Tigers teammates Charlie Gehringer or Mickey Cochrane. Still, as John Rosengren explains at some length in this new biography, Greenberg (1911−1986) was a remarkable and significant figure, particularly for Jewish Americans, who spent much of the 1930s threatened and marginalized and eager to place their faith in a tall, handsome athlete who never ran away from his Judaism.
Rosengren aims high with this book, shooting to correct some of the misconceptions that have arisen from past books and movies. In doing so, he goes over some familiar stories and freshens them up: the story of Greenberg’s much-discussed decision to not play on Yom Kippur 1934, his attempt to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record, his four and a half years of military service in World War II, and his encouragement of Jackie Robinson during the darkest days of Robinson’s rookie year.
The author also shares stories about Greenberg that make him seem totally human, covering not only his greatest hits but some of his famous failures. At one point, the slugger is described as “thin-skinned, stubborn and undiplomatic,” and that seems to fit, given some of his outbursts of temper. This is a well-rounded profile.
One might question if another book on Hank Greenberg was really needed. The answer is: If you only read one book on the Jewish baseball great, this is the one to pick. Bibliography, footnotes, index, photographs.
Related: Jews and Baseball Reading List