Saturday, March 23, 2013
Review: Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One
Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A quick, but interesting biography of Hank Greenberg--the first major Jewish baseball star. The book focuses quite a bit on the contrast of Greenberg’s own secularism with his fame as Jewish athlete. Greenberg was a hero to Jews in America in the 30s and 40s (and beyond), not just for being a great baseball player but for sitting out a regular season game against the Yankees because it fell on Yom Kippur. This was not from a need for religious observance, but from a connection to his family and culture. For many, this is perplexing: if he wasn’t religious, why would he care about playing on Yom Kippur. A similar question arises a generation later when Sandy Koufax does the same thing. It points to the difficult and complex nature of what it means to be a Jew in America…far beyond this review and the book. Kurlansky is not out to try to solve that enigma.
Kurlansky tries to do justice the Greenberg “myth”: he is not out to debunk or discredit Greenberg, but he also wants to get the story correct. The game with the Yankees was not one that really mattered (it was a regular season game and the Tigers had all but wrapped up the pennant), and though hurt, Greenberg said he would have played on Yom Kippur the following year against the Cubs during the World Series. (One wonders what would have happened to the Greenberg narrative had he played.) Kurlansky’s point is that Greenberg was a complex guy who balanced his love of baseball and his desire to win with his commitments to his family/roots and his recognition of the role he played in the public eye as a famous Jew. It was a struggle that he dealt with his whole life, and only in his later years did he, by most accounts, become comfortable in his role as a Public Jew. Kurlansky quotes Greenberg’s unpublished autobiography: “I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great baseball player, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer. I realize now, more than I used, to how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids…” (143).
After his playing days, Greenberg moved over to the management and ownership side of the game. He lived a full life beyond baseball. Kurlansky writes “baseball was not the goal of Greenberg’s life; it was just a tool for achieving his goal” (143).
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