Vox Tablet

Slugger

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

May 16, 2011
Hank Greenberg, 1938.(Bettmann/CORBIS)

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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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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