Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren

This new volume comes to me as gift from my 10th grade Bible class (knowing my proclivity towards baseball) and brings to light some aspects of Hank Greenberg that actually show a tragic disconnect.  The book is divided into basically his youth, his playing years, his baseball management years and his family life after baseball.

Hank was a superstar.  He was a ball player that loved knocking in runs; he valued the RBI statistic over home runs.  He was a crowd 'pleaser'; often hitting in clutch situations and winning ball games.  Hank appreciated his Jewish status as inspiring Jewish kids and he took to heart the antisemitism of the thirties and the rise of Hitler.  He absorbed much verbal abuse for being Jewish. He would say that every homer was a hit against Hitler.  He respected his parents wish not to play on the High Holy days.  On the morning of Rosh HaShanah, he went to synagogue but played in the afternoon,  On Yom Kippur, however, he sat out games in observance of the holiest day of the year.  He was very conscious of being a prominent Jew in the Major Leagues.

When Greenberg was general manager of the Cleveland Indians he alienated some great players by demanding pay cuts.  Al Rosen, for example, decided to quit baseball instead of taking a cut in salary,  feeling that Greenberg was unnecessarily harsh with him.  (Rosen, so ensconced in the Jewish community at the time, did not need baseball to succeed and was offered some great opportunities.)  Pitching great Bob Feller was also asked to take a cut.  One sees that Greenberg was insensitive to the players and eventually was let go as a result of his not getting along with the players.

The greatest disconnect, however, was his relationship to his Judaism and how he related that identity to his three children.  After serving in the Pacific theater of WWII, he became disillusioned with organized religion and did not frequent the synagogue.  He did not communicate his religion to his children to the chagrin of his daughter who was embarrassed about not knowing about Judaism.  He replied that he did not believe in organized religion!  His sons, in going to Yale, put down "Congregationalist" for their religion, as that was the religious auspices of the university!  His advocacy for the State of Israel was absolute, however, even alienating his daughter in law who identified with Palestinian causes.  He demanded observance of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement by going to the planetarium!  What a confused soul!

Someone who intuitively understood his responsibility as a Jewish sports hero could not even pass on a Jewish identity to his children!  A sad disconnect.  As Peter Levine so eloquently has stated, Baseball and other sports were merely vehicles for the immigrant generation to assimilate.  Hank Greenberg's assimilation was so complete he passed on to his children an absolute American identity without a Jewish conscience.

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