Jewish Journal

Baseball’s reluctant Jewish hero

by Steve Weinberg

Posted on May. 5, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Hyman (Hank) Greenberg, Major League Baseball player extraordinaire and subject of “Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One” by Mark Kurlansky (Yale University Press, $25.00), probably would have disliked being included in the “Jewish Lives” series published by Yale University Press.

When most fans talk about most famous athletes, they don’t usually open the conversation by saying “Bill, that great Methodist center for the Boston Celtics” or “Johnny, that amazing Baptist quarterback for the Chicago Bears.” Yet when fans talked about Greenberg, they regularly referred to him as that Jewish slugger for the Detroit Tigers. What Greenberg wanted most was for fans and sportswriters and everybody else to consider him a great baseball player who happened to be born into the Jewish faith, not a Jewish baseball player.

Greenberg wished in vain, and the pressure on him as a symbol of an entire religious faith seemed stifling at times, especially given that he had not even reached his twenty-fourth birthday when he had to make the biggest decision of all: In 1934, the Tigers were contending with the New York Yankees for a league championship. Every game mattered, and Greenberg would often carry his team to victory with his batting prowess. Many Jews, however, were beseeching Greenberg to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur rather than play baseball that day. (Greenberg had decided earlier to play the game scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, a less solemn, more joyful holiday than Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, Greenberg hit two home runs to account for all the Tigers’ scoring in a 2-1 victory.)

As Kurlansky opens the biographical narrative, he writes “In 1934 Hank Greenberg observed Yom Kippur, possibly for the only time in his adult life. It defined him for the rest of his days, though this was not what he had wanted. To him it seemed absurd to be defined by his religious observance when he was utterly unobservant.” Even Greenberg’s parents, who wanted him to become more observant, felt unsure what their 6 feet 4 inch athletic son would decide. At least 30 other Jewish men had played Major League Baseball by the time Greenberg arrived in Detroit. Those previous players were not stars, however, meaning their private religious decisions usually remained private.

Context is vital to the craft of biography. Kurlansky provides excellent context over and over. What he offers about Greenberg playing or not playing on Yom Kippur constitutes valuable context about Judaism:

“…the entire debate was founded on a compromise that Jewish law had already made with America, because to a strict observant Jew, the most important holiday is neither Rosh Hashanah nor Yom Kippur but Shabbat, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This is the only holiday whose observance is one of the Ten Commandments. No baseball player has ever refused to play games on Shabbat, and it is doubtful that he could keep his job if he did. But Jewish practice is full of compromises, and by 1934 the debate over playing on Shabbat was long past and the burning question was: should a Jew play a sport—not least, one that would be the focus of national attention—on the two holiest days of the year aside from the Sabbath.” Given that 1934 arrived during perhaps the most anti-Semitic interval of American history, while Adolf Hitler consolidated power in Germany, the debate felt magnified.

The Tigers lost the Yom Kippur game with Greenberg absent. Because the Tigers did prevail over the Yankees at the end of the season, Greenberg’s decision to sit out did not affect on-the-field baseball lore. Off the field, however, “the decision resonated far beyond what [Greenberg] could have imagined,” according to Kurlansky.

Growing up, it would seem that Hank Greenberg would find no need to imagine the benefits and burdens of celebrity. Some of Kurlansky’s book embraces traditional chronological biography, including the birth of Greenberg during 1911 in New York City to David Greenberg and Sarah Schwartz, immigrants from Romania. The lower Manhattan neighborhood lacked open land for a baseball field, and few who resided there thought about the sport. Athletic Jews in that neighborhood at that time gravitated toward basketball and boxing.

When Hank was five years old, the family moved to the Bronx, where open space allowed for baseball; Greenberg fell in love with the sport. Tall and strong for his age, albeit somewhat gangly, Greenberg developed his skills by practicing with a bat and ball and mitt. He demonstrated little interest in his schoolwork, although later in life his intellectual curiosity would kick in.

Greenberg was plenty smart about his career, though, managing his earnings well and becoming an accomplished Major League Baseball executive after retiring as a player. Admirably, he played a significant role in integrating professional baseball across racial and ethnic lines. When he died during 1986, Greenberg was not remembered entirely for his Jewishness. He had transcended that label to become an accomplished human being in the secular world.

Steve Weinberg lives in Columbia

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