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Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes

By John Rosengren

New American Library

391 pages, $16

By Gene Warner

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

The Chicago White Sox were notorious for bench jockeying, led by their combative manager, an Archie Bunker-like character named Jimmy Dykes. Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg, the nation’s first Jewish sports star, had heard all the taunts before: “Throw him a pork chop” or “Christ killer.” This time, in the summer of 1939, someone from the White Sox bench shouted, “You big, yellow Jew bastard.”

Later, after a Chicago player intentionally spiked Greenberg on a routine pickoff attempt at first base, Greenberg punched him in the face, earning a quick ejection from the umpire.

Still furious after the game, Greenberg walked into the White Sox clubhouse and announced, “I want the guy who called me a ‘yellow Jew bastard’ to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

No one moved. As one of Greenberg’s teammates said later, “The guy with the big mouth was the luckiest guy in the world, because Greenberg would have killed him.”

That was Hank Greenberg. The Tigers first baseman was a baseball superstar throughout the 1930s and ’40s, later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he’s best remembered as an icon and symbol, a Jewish superstar who rose above the taunts to change the way a nation felt about Jews before and during World War II – and, just as importantly, how Jews felt about themselves.

Author John Rosengren paints a compelling portrait of a man who transformed views about American Jews during their era of assimilation in the early 20th century. A large, powerfully built home-run hitter who hit 58 homers in 1938, Greenberg challenged the prevailing stereo- type of Jews as weak, unathletic victims.

“It wasn’t only transformational for the Jews, looking at Hank Greenberg and seeing themselves – it was amazing for Jews thinking what other people think of us,” one rabbi and baseball scholar from that era observed. “I did not grow up feeling vulnerable, the pipsqueak getting sand kicked in our faces, because they didn’t see us that way anymore; they saw us as Americans.”

Modern-day civil-liberties attorney Alan Dershowitz went one step further: “He (Greenberg) defied Hitler’s stereotype (about Jews). For that very reason, I think he may have been the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s.”

This book works for both baseball fans and Jewish-centric readers, a breezy read filled with great WWII-era baseball anecdotes and insights into the character of one of the game’s great superstars.

Greenberg possessed an incredible work ethic, born of the fear of both failure and humiliation. He played with the intensity of Ty Cobb, but off the field always looked out for the little guy, from sick kids to Tigers ticket takers and grounds-crew workers. He also flashed a quick temper, a stubborn streak and a tough negotiating stance.

The book opens with a true dilemma for Greenberg, whether to play an important game on Rosh Hashanah in 1934. Would he be true to his faith and his parents? Or to his teammates and fans? Greenberg somehow appeased both groups.…

“Greenberg showed them that assimilation didn’t mean selling out, …” the author writes. “By attending religious services in the morning and playing baseball in the afternoon, he struck the perfect balance for the Jewish-American.”

This book also offers plenty of great anecdotes and other tidbits, including ones about: the blatant anti-Semitism of Henry Ford; the day Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man streak ended in Detroit; the ban on radio broadcasters’ comments about the weather, even in a rainout, during the height of World War II; a collision at first base between Greenberg and the signature trailblazer, Jackie Robinson; and the morning in 1947, when the aging veteran Greenberg visited his dying idol, Babe Ruth, in Ruth’s New York City apartment and even asked for his autograph.

Ruth, who advised Greenberg to keep playing as long as he could, even sipped a beer during the brief meeting.

Doctor’s orders, of course.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter and student of all things baseball.