John Rosengren’s great new biography of Hank Greenberg, entitled Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, will be released next month. As in his other books, Rosengren’s keen sense of historical context informs his account of the most prominent Jewish baseball player in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Rosengren opens the book with the fascinating story of Greenberg’s 1934 dilemma over whether to play on Rosh Hashanah. With the Tigers slumping, still one win away from clinching the pennant, he had to choose between his faith and those who relied on his stellar bat being in Detroit’s lineup. To make matters worse, he had promised his parents that he would not play on High Holy Days. Rosengren takes us inside both the synagogue and the clubhouse, giving us an intimate and detailed account of Greenberg’s internal struggle and the widespread speculation and judgment going on all around him.
Eventually, Greenberg made the decision that the game was too important to his teammates and the people of Detroit. Not only did “Hammerin’ Hank” play, but he hit two homeruns, one that tied the game and another that ended it.
This episode shows that unlike his counterparts, Greenberg was not simply playing for himself; he was representing an entire religion. As John M. Carlisle of the Detroit News wrote after the game, “Henry Greenberg is something more off the playing field than a first baseman who has been one of the sparkplugs in the Tiger drive for a pennant. He is a finely bred young man with a high sense of duty.”
As the book unfolds, we see the many different ways Greenberg’s faith affected him as a player. Not only did he have to deal with verbal abuse from opposing players and fans, he often felt he had little connection with his teammates on the Tigers. “Hank continued to feel his otherness among his teammates,” writes Rosengren. “Most of them had never heard of a seder, let alone attended one.”
Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes cleverly uses baseball to tell a uniquely American story. Rosengren gives us plenty of Hank’s heroics on the field, but its broad view on the strange position in society Hank inhabited and the challenges he faced amply demonstrates that the gifted ballplayer was also a complicated, cautious and kind man who truly merits the title of “hero.”