A veteran sportswriter fondly recalls the life of “the greatest Jewish ballplayer of all time.”
While not the first Jew to play major league baseball—and Sandy Koufax fans will argue he wasn’t the greatest—Hank Greenberg (1911–1986) was the first to succeed spectacularly, paving the way for Jews in the national pastime as Jackie Robinson did for African-Americans. In this cradle-to-grave biography, Rosengren (Journalism/Univ. of Minnesota; Hammerin’ Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid, 2008, etc.) pays particular attention to Greenberg’s playing days, to his towering achievements in the game, to the 47-month chunk of his prime lost to World War II and to his later career as a baseball executive. We learn, as well, about the man: his devotion to his parents, his tireless work ethic, his modesty, his short fuse and his popularity with the ladies. Though not especially devout, the “Jewish Babe Ruth” famously refused to play on Yom Kippur in 1934, a decision that simultaneously chanced the ridicule of gentiles and signaled to Jews that tradition need not be wholly sacrificed to assimilation. The slugger fully understood his symbolic role, the feature of Greenberg’s story that most clearly engages Rosengren. During this feared hitter’s heyday—a time when Hitler assumed power in Germany, when the KKK thrived in America’s South, Detroit’s own Henry Ford was the nation’s best known anti-Semite, “an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent,”—Greenberg emerged as a powerful figure, an accomplished and unapologetic ethnic standard-bearer. Rosengren traces the steps toward Greenberg’s triumph, vividly reminding us of his hard-earned, path-breaking role.
A sensitive look at the cultural impact of the man who once was “the face of Judaism in America.”