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Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, by Mark Kurlansky. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011. 164 pp. $25.00.
Mark Kurlansky offers a breezy, upbeat recounting of the life and times of 1930s Jewish sports icon, Hank Greenberg. Clearly pitched for a popular crowd, it may well replace the “Great Jews in Sports” volumes that are often rife with errors and inaccuracies as a ubiquitous bar or bat-mitzvah gift. However, as scholarship, the book breaks little new ground as it repeats much of what is already known about an era of great discomfit for Jews in America within which the slugging first baseman for the Detroit Tigers played. Rather, it offers a useful primer for the uninitiated on the basic facts and trends in the sports history of the Jews in the United States. Kurlansky also complements what is actually a long essay on Greenberg with warranted, but not uncommon, discussions of Jewish attitudes towards physical vs. intellectualism, taking his story—on occasion—back to biblical times. Most of his overviews are on target, as they have been drawn from the important academic work that is presently being achieved in the field. These derivative insights are not documented by notes, although there is a bibliography of the key books that the interested can consult, if they seek to delve more deeply.
Committed to emphasizing how special his protagonist was, Kurlansky sometimes goes out of bounds which such “heroic,” or clichéd assertions that “like his immigrant parents and his siblings, Hank was looking for a path to a better life,” or “in terms of career, he played to win,” or “teammates and opponents alike acknowledged him as the hardest working player they had even seen,” or “if you were Jewish and from the Bronx, you wanted a connection with Hank Greenberg.” Readers seeking a sense of Jewish pride from the ballplayer’s saga will be more than satisfied with these uncritical depictions.
What scholars may appreciate about this latest iteration of Greenberg’s life— the athlete had been previously favored with a triple crown of articles, books, and even a movie about his life —is Kurlansky’s effort to situate his subject as an exemplar of the identity issues that plagued so many second-generation Jews in America before the Second World War and bedeviled those who became public cultural figures. Essentially, Greenberg solely wanted to succeed in his chosen athletic profession—a calling quite different from that of most Jews—and to integrate himself unobtrusively within the larger world around him. But neither American society nor, most important, the Jewish community, would let him be just a great sports champion. Circumstances that far-transcended the baseball diamond forced him to carry the banner of Jewishness; a burden that he would have been perfectly content not to have borne. Greenberg’s conflicts were, of course, played out most dramatically in 1934, when his manager told this star athlete, in no uncertain terms, that he was obliged to compete for their community, that is, Detroit, owners, teammates, and fans, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Jewish community, on the other hand, prayed that he present himself as a “symbol of resistance to assimilation.” Ultimately, Greenberg played on the Jewish New Year—when the pennant was endangered— and did not compete on Yom Kippur; at that point the league championship was just about clinched. In Kurlansky’s rendition of this off-told tale, it was not Jewish importuning that carried the day. Rather, it was his parents “Orthodoxy”—a devotion to religious values that he did not possess—and his filial willingness to accede to his father’s wishes, that kept him away from the ball-park. Had he had his druthers, Greenberg, this hero who did not want to be one— as Kurlansky calls him—unquestionably would have played and done his best on the field and at bat.
Yom Kippur of 1934 would be the last Jewish holy day he would observe. Later on in life, Greenberg would assert that his Jewishness was “an accident of birth” as he had become comfortably “wrapped up among Gentiles” in a more accepting American post-war period. Through the metaphor of a sports hero, this slim, entertaining volume reminds us of the challenging mix of emotions ranging from the desire to be accepted by those around vs. the pressures to affirm Jewish values and identity that confronted all Jewish men and women of Greenberg’s generation.
Jeffrey S. Gurock