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

Yale University Press  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.

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