Hank Green­berg: The Hero Who Did­n’t Want to Be One

Mark Kurlan­sky
  • Review
By – August 30, 2011
Hank Green­berg want­ed to play base­ball, to be a great ballplay­er, but cir­cum­stances made him the icon­ic Jew­ish ballplay­er, a hero for Amer­i­can Jews in the vir­u­lent­ly anti-Semit­ic 1930’s.

The son of mid­dle-class immi­grants who grew up in a com­fort­able Jew­ish enclave in the Bronx, Green­berg was expect­ed, like his broth­ers and sis­ter, to go to col­lege and pur­sue a pro­fes­sion. But there was a park in his neigh­bor­hood, and from his ear­ly boy­hood, all Hymie Green­berg want­ed was to play base­ball. Tall and a lit­tle clum­sy, Green­berg made up for his phys­i­cal short­com­ings with hard work, prac­tice, and deter­mi­na­tion. Signed by the Detroit Tigers, to please his father, he planned to begin his pro­fes­sion­al career after he fin­ished col­lege, but when spring came, he left N.Y.U dur­ing his first year and head­ed to spring train­ing in Flori­da, leav­ing behind the con­fined world of the Bronx.

Hank Green­berg just want­ed to be an Amer­i­can. He nev­er denied that he was Jew­ish, but Judaism had no place in his life. Instead, Judaism was thrust on him, and his deci­sion not to play on Yom Kip­pur, 1934, sealed his fate. Across the coun­try he was laud­ed as true to his faith, and he became an imme­di­ate hero to the Detroit Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the city that was the epi­cen­ter of Amer­i­can anti-Semi­tism. In lat­er years Green­berg came to under­stand and appre­ci­ate his role, but at the time it was an embar­rass­ment.

Mark Kurlan­sky, the pro­lif­ic author, sets Greenberg’s sto­ry against the sto­ry of Jews in base­ball and the ven­omous anti-Semi­tism of Father Charles Cough­lin and Hen­ry Ford. An ami­able and mod­est man who enjoyed a full and var­ied life, Hank Green­berg nev­er cap­i­tal­ized on the anti-Semi­tism he endured. He believed that big­otry was igno­rance and the best defense against it was dig­ni­ty and restraint, set­ting the exam­ple that Jack­ie Robin­son fol­lowed and encour­ag­ing Robin­son in his even greater strug­gle against prej­u­dice. Cel­e­brat­ed for what he wasn’t, Hank Green­berg nev­er­the­less remains the first Jew­ish Amer­i­can sports super­star. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, fron­tispiece, index.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions