“Something else was happening on the Crotona Park Sandlot. Hymie wasn’t simply falling in love with baseball; he was becoming an American… The national pastime ushered Hymie into the culture by a means his Romanian-born, Yiddish-speaking parents couldn’t.” (from the chapter “Bruggy: The Pride of Crotona)
Opening with an agonizing Hank (Hymie) Greenberg sitting in the Detroit Tigers’ locker room on September 10, 1934 prior to a game with the Boston Red Sox, author John Rosengren sets in motion the larger theme and story of Major League Baseball’s first, and probably foremost, Jewish star for the agony that Greenberg was experiencing that day was not due to his performance the day before nor even that day, it was an agony of faith verse work. September 10, 1934 was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Greenberg was torn between honoring his people, especially his parents, and honoring his teammates.
This tension, between a game that reflected America’s offers for success and fame (as well as the ridicule and bigotry for any one who was different, as Hank would experience) and Greenberg’s Jewish heritage is what Rosengren deals with as he tells Greenberg’s story from the sandlot fields at Crotona Park in the Bronx; to his success on the field with Detroit, before and after a four year stint in the Army Air Corps during World War 2; to his post-playing involvement with baseball and the legendary and innovative baseball owner Bill Veeck.
This is a telling of a personal man, a “private man” Rosengren indicates, in a public profession. And the author tells the story with an awareness that fame and fortune has always been a mixed blessing and definitely was for Rosengren as illustrated in both the strong emotions regarding Greenberg’s draft status in 1941 and his desire to play for the Tigers before serving verses the accolades which came as he flirted with Babe Ruth’s 60 home run record with 58 of his own in 1938.
But Rosengren also gives us the larger picture against which Greenberg played. Interweaving the deteriorating events of the 1930’s in Europe as Hitler came to power and the oppression of the Jewish population began to increase in both frequency and intensity, Rosengren writes of Greenberg’s increasing popularity as his bat defined his success and as his success as a Jew began to tear down the walls of prejudice regarding the Jewish athleticism. This larger picture provides us with an understanding of just how much was truly riding on Greenberg’s shoulders… and bat.
Yet there is also the element of the game “America’s pastime” in Rosenberg’s writing as the generation of players who Greenberg followed -Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to name two – were passing from the game. The voices of the fans, some Jewish and some long time friends of Greenberg himself, are part of this element as well. And Rosengren illustrates this in a poignant moment when a seventeen-year-old Detroit native, Fred Rice, rode the street car on May 2, 1941 to Briggs (later Tiger Stadium) Stadium to see if he could again usher at the game. Rice was picked and stationed behind the visitor’s dugout on the first-base side.
He watched the Yankees take infield practice and thought that something didn’t look right with Gehrig at first. Lou scooped up a ground ball and threw it to Bill Dickey, but his throw bounced weakly in front of the catcher. Gehrig walked off the field and passed in front of Fred. The boy waved and said, “Hi Lou.” Gehrig looked up, smiled his sad smile at Fred and ducked into the dugout. Fred did not realize it immediately, but that was the last time Lou Gehrig appeared on the field as a ball player.”
Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes is book about baseball and more. It is about integration, prejudice, fame, and failure. It is about a man, driven relentlessly to succeed (and he trained to succeed as well), who did not just carry “his people” but a team and a city, and I think, a nation during a time that was troubled and eventually at war. Just as he did on September 10, 1934, when, in the bottom of the ninth, he hit a home run to win the game.
I rate this book a ‘great’ read.
Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes is to be released on March 5, 2013 by NAL Press.
Note: I received a galley copy of this book from the publisher NAL (New American Library) via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.