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In a new biography, Mark Kurlansky explores the life of baseball great—and Jewish hero—Hank Greenberg

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Hank Greenberg, 1938. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

If you ask a kid to name a Jewish baseball hero it’s likely she’ll answer Kevin Youkilis if she’s thinking current day icons, or, if this theoretical kid is more historically oriented she’ll cite the great Dodger Sandy Koufax. But long before either of them put on a glove, there was Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg made his major league mark in the 1930s and ’40s, playing primarily for the Detroit Tigers. He was a first-baseman and a phenomenal batter. In 1938, in a single season, he hit 58 home runs. He made the All Star team five times, was twice named American League MVP, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, and still holds the American League record for runs batted in by a right-handed batter in a single season: 183 in 1937. Over this entire career, he had a whopping 1,276 RBIs.

Like Koufax, Greenberg sat out a game that fell on Yom Kippur; in Greenberg’s case it was during the 1934 pennant race. It sealed his fate as Jewish hero in an era that was virulently anti-Semitic at home and abroad. Greenberg accepted this role graciously but with some discomfort. Writer Mark Kurlansky has a new biography out about the star. It’s called Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One. Kurlansky speaks with Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about Greenberg’s improbable status as a Jewish icon (he was far from observant), the challenges he faced as arguably the highest profile Jewish sportsman in the mid-1930s, and why he is not better remembered by baseball fans today. [Running time: 15:41.] 

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Dan Silagi says:

Had the wind been blowing out at Wrigley Field on a few more occasions than it did, Shawn Green, not Greenberg, would hold the record for most home runs ever hit by a Jew. (As it is, Greenberg has 331, Green, 328.)

But Greenberg missed five seasons due to World War II (he was actually drafted twice), during which time, he would have hit an additional 175 or more homers, and batted in an additional 500 or more runs, putting him in the top ranks of the all-time leaders in both categories.

Hammerin’ Hank’s record which stands out most is his 183 RBI’s in a season, as well as his RBI to games played ratio, which is almost 1. No modern ballplayer, not even A-Rod, has been able to match that.

Depends which kid you ask. If it’s NY, Ike Davis would be the “go to” guy. For the Nationals, Jason Marquis; for the Oakland A’s, Craig Breslow, etc.

By the way, there are still those who think Youkilis is Greek, or at least not Jewish, judging by the video of comedian Dennis Leary going on and on in shock about the Red Sox player’s religious identification Check it out on Youtube.

Mr Mel says:

If anyone is interested in the current crop of Jewish Major Leaguers. Here’s the link to the best source: http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com/

JCarpenter says:

Dad’s 1930′s childhood was spent in Detroit, cheering for Hank Greenberg; my older brother, a 1960′s sandlot lefty himself, idolized Sandy Koufax; when I moved to Chicago in the 1980′s, my poor mother was confused about her grandchildren’s new hero, Ryne Sandburg: “so what kind of name is that, ‘Ryne’?”

Jay Kanter says:

Hank Greenberg was a remarkable baseball player and a great
man.Greenberg was well before Jackie Robinson as an example of standing above all the antijewish racism of the thirties.He served our country in the second world war[he volunteered] but the Detroit owner did’nt like Hank[he once wore a Yankee uniform]and traded him to the National league right after the war.It should be noted that Ian Kinsler and Ryan Braun are also Jewish

Shalom Freedman says:

This was for me an extremely interesting interview. I had not understood the kind of harassment Greenberg had been subject to. I did not realize the degree of anti- Semitism which had been present on the ballfield. I I suspect the book gives more space than the interview does to Greenberg’s special skills as a ballplayer, and provides a fuller picture of his relation to his own Jewish identity.

naomi weinberg radtke says:

I REALLY ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE/AUDIO ABOUT HANK GREENBERG. I ALSO GREW UP
THINKING SANDY KOFAX WAS OUR HONORABLE JEW. THIS WAS VERY INTERESTING.
I NEVER KNEW ANY ROUMANIAN JEW PLAYED BIG LEAGUE SPORTS. WE ARE FEW AND
FAR BETWEEN. A SMALL BREED, AT BEST.

IS THERE ANY MORE INFO OUT THERE ABOUT FAMOUS JEWISH ROUMANIANS?

Earl Ganz says:

Good interview. Have to get the book.

I’m nearing eighty now and remember Hank Greenberg and his accomplishments
very well. I didn’t know he had to undergo so much anti-semitism as I lived within
walking distanced of Ebbets field and everybody in a our neighborhood was Jewish.
I never saw him play. There was no TV then and Brooklyn was a National League
town. I did see Phil Weintraub play 1B for the Giants during the war. Baseball trivia.
Anybody remember him? Or Snuffy Sternweiss who played SS for the Yankees and
won an american League batting title with a barely over 300 average?

As for great Romanian Jews. What about the writer, Myron Brinig from the thirties?
He grew up in Butte, Montana and wrote a novel about his father called Singerman.
The family was from Rumania.

Earl

Fred says:

Hank and Sandy are both truly honorable men and heroes to all Jews, but if you ask “her” to name a current Jewish baseball hero, “she’ll” have no idea.

yes, fred, she’s far too busy menstruating and attending to her cuticles to have heard of baseball.

Ian Kinsler has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother; therefore, the Orthodox and Conservative movements would not consider him Jewish.

Sara Ivry says:

Hey @Fred, I see your comment and I object! She would probably say Shawn Green or Kevin Youkilis. I’m sorry, but I was a baseball fan growing up — even went to the World Series once. To assume that a girl wouldn’t be a sports fan or know the background or stats of certain players is incorrect and, well, as Marjorie points out…arguably sexist.

J Carpenter says:

My younger sister played first base on her h.s. softball team, and could hit for power; team went to MI state finals three years in a row back in the late ’70′s. Then there was basketball—low-post center, specialty was the hook shot . . .

M Leventhal says:

Hank Greenberg might have broken Babe Ruth’s home run record if he would have been pitched to in the last weeks of the season.He was frequently intentionately walked to keep a Jew from becoming the greatest home run hitter.
M

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In a new biography, Mark Kurlansky explores the life of baseball great—and Jewish hero—Hank Greenberg

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