Friday, March 15, 2013

Hammerin Hank Greenberg: Jewish Pioneer by Shelley Sommer

This slim volume seems to follow quite closely the documentary film by Aviva Kempner, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.  It is a fine contribution for one seeking a succinct synopsis of the career of Jewish home-run king Hank Greenberg.  It was probably written for Middle School.

When studying modern Jewish American history, one realizes that Hank Greenberg is a key figure because he represents the first generation American wanting to blend in to American life.  He is the product of Jewish immigrants from the greatest wave of Jewish migration of 1880's-1924.  His playing career spanned the 1930's that coincided with the rise of Nazism and Hitler's takeover oversees and the rise of Antisemitism here in America.

Observing Greenberg, one can learn much about being Jewish in a hostile environment,

Greenberg was a perennial optimist; he always saw the good in people and never blamed others for his mistakes.  He had a strong work ethic and worked hard to master the different positions that he was asked to undertake for the sake of the team. (First base and then Left field)  He was not afraid to ask for help.  When he made the transition from First to Left field, he asked Barney McCosky, the Tiger Center fielder to give him direction and help.  He humbled himself to ask the Yankee great, Joe DiMaggio for tips in playing the outfield. (One learns that Greenberg became friendly with DiMaggio because they both were regulars at the famous NY saloon club Toots Shor's)

In the hostile environments of his career, first in Beaumont Texas and then the American League, Hank learned to mostly ignore the barbs and insults.  Only on occasion did he feel it necessary to enter the other side's locker room after a game to ask if anyone had anything more to say to him.  There was never a fight because nobody wanted to pick a fight with such an imposing figure.  Hank encouraged Jackie Robinson to which Robinson replied with a compliment.

Personally, I would say in comparing Greenberg to Sandy Koufax, historically Greenberg is more significant to Jewish history. They both did not play on Yom Kippur, however, Greenberg sought rabbinical advice about Rosh Hashanah and although one need not agree with the permissive ruling, the idea of asking for advice is quintessentially Jewish.  Both superstars were secular in religious outlook, innately modest and  uncomfortable with being lionized as special Jewish heroes. Both did not want to be recognized with the adjective "Jewish" ahead of "ball player".  As a matter of fact, Greenberg mentioned that the service during WWII removed the ethnic adjectives from one's identity; everyone who served became just American!  Greenberg, however, seemed more at ease later on with his Jewish identity and enjoyed the idea that he trail-blazed a path for Jewish kids.

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