Baseball legend Henry “Hank” Greenberg (1911 – 1986) has long been an inspiration to American Jews. In addition to his phenomenal athletic skills, he is best known for having refused to play on Yom Kippur during the 1934 season. Stephen Krensky and Alette Straathof’s new picture book biography recalls the antisemitic abuse to which Greenberg was subjected, along with his courage and resilience. As the book’s subtitle suggests, there are many ways in which a gifted athlete can be a star.
When the book begins, twenty-three-year-old Hank is playing first base for the Detroit Tigers. He has always wanted to be an athlete, yet his parents, in typical Jewish-immigrant fashion, always assumed he would be a doctor or a lawyer. (“The choice is yours,” his mother assures him.) Readers first see Hank swiftly catching the ball; but by the next page, his success is already upset by prejudice. A jeering crowd shouts antisemitic slurs at him as he turns away, proudly carrying his bat. Straathof’s pictures do not shy away from depicting such hatred. The rage on the people’s faces may remind adults of photographs from the later Civil Rights era, when white supremacists angrily protested desegregation.
There are a limited number of options available to Hank when it comes to choosing how to respond to this hatred. One two-page spread shows him against a red background that is exploding with crude taunts, each one printed in uppercase in an exaggeratedly large font. Although Hank admits to himself that the bigots are “getting under his skin,” he nevertheless believes that staying calm and proving his skills will be the best plan of action. Upon the arrival of the High Holidays in the fall, Hank must decide whether or not to play, since Krensky carefully states that most Jews don’t work on those days. Even though Greenberg was not strictly observant, he was likely aware that his personal decisions about religious practice would reflect on Jewish people as a whole.
Hank asks a rabbi for advice and is told that there is a difference between playing on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. By the time Yom Kippur arrives, he is still torn, debating whether to attend synagogue or avoid contact with the public by staying home. When he shows up at services, the entire community — including his rabbi — applauds, and Hank knows he is in the right place.
In Greenberg’s life and career, he proved that being a star is about more than being named most valuable player or playing on a team that won the World Series twice. This New York City boy earned the respect of his fellow Jews, and of many Americans, when he laid down his bat and put on his tallis.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.