By Donald H.
SAN DIEGO—In front of Hank Greenberg is the pitcher, menacing, mean, wanting to
strike him out and make him look like a fool. Behind him, what seems like a stadium
full of anti-Semites.
This is Detroit in
the 1930s, home of Henry Ford, who churns anti-Jewish hatred in his Dearborn Independent newspaper with the
same kind of assembly-line speed that has made his automobile factories famous.
Adding to the feeling of discomfort for Greenberg, Detroit is also the home of
the Jew baiter and hater of radio fame, Father Charles Coughlin.
Be that as it may, Detroit is where Greenberg, the big and tall, flat-footed
Jewish boy from the Bronx, was destined to play in Major League Baseball. And
if Greenberg couldn’t make believers out of all the fans, at least the thunder
in his bat could win the respect of most of the American League’s pitchers,
except one—fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller—who somehow could always speed rockets
past Greenberg, even in the best of his slugging years.
John Rosengren’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero
of Heroes is a biography released in March 2013 that tells about baseball
with all the authority of a Feller pitch smacking into a catcher’s mitt, and
depicts Greenberg’s steadfastness amid the rise of Nazism in Germany and its
sympathetic movements in the United States with the drama of a come-from-behind,
bases-loaded Greenberg homerun.
The book tells how children of Jewish immigrants were galvanized by the
exploits of one of their own, how Greenberg showed his coreligionists in those
pre-World War II years that one could be both Jewish and 100-percent American.
Greenberg hit 58 homeruns in a single year, helped Detroit win the World Series
twice, claimed some of baseball’s most vaunted hitting titles—and did so under
the microscope, enduring constant taunts from haters, an ordeal that in a magnified
form Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, would later
endure. To Greenberg’s credit, he was one of the few baseball players to
encourage Robinson, urging him to hang in and to ignore the taunts. As the
movie “42” makes clear, Robinson did that, and more.
It’s easy—as the subtitle of this book suggests—to glorify Greenberg as a hero,
but Rosengren makes it clear that, notwithstanding the large shadow he cast,
Greenberg was made from mortal flesh. He had thin skin, an inflated ego, and an
unthinking tongue. Yet, for all that, he was known as an honest man who
made up for natural deficiencies by spending more time at batting and fielding
practice than perhaps any other big name in baseball. He used to pay batboys
and neighborhood kids to shag balls for him before his games. He took batting
practice before batting practice.
Greenberg also got into famous contract disputes with management, recognizing
that the active life of a baseball player is short indeed, and one ought to
make money while one can. But later, when he was in baseball management
himself, he became known for his stinginess during contract negotiations. So
maybe it wasn’t the principle, but the competition of making deals that really