Mark Kurlansky, the author of Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One, explores the legendary life of Hank Greenberg, the famous first baseman and power hitter for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s.
Why does Hank Greenberg remain so important in American Jewish history?
In the 1930s, at a time when there was so much anti-Semitism in America that Jews hesitated to be too conspicuous, here was a Jewish superstar who seemed fearless, who faced relentless anti-Semitism and never backed away. But in the longer view of history, Hank Greenberg was a man who stood against not only anti-Semitism but racism and bigotry in general, and did so with remarkable grace. His refusal to ever use prejudice as an excuse and his ability to always keep his dignity stand as an important chapter in the history of the fight against bigotry in America, one that can inspire not only Jews but all victims of hatred and discrimination.
How much of his decision not to play ball on Yom Kippur, 1934, was informed by his religious faith?
He had no religious faith, was completely secular. When his team needed him in a tight pennant race, on Rosh Hashanah, he played. But by Yom Kippur the pennant was secure, and since many Jews had been upset about Rosh Hashanah and it was an embarrassment for his family, he decided not to play. The following year on Yom Kippur he was in a World Series and his team needed him, and he agreed to play without hesitation. But a wrist injury the day before prevented him from participating, thereby securing the myth that "Hank Greenberg won't play on the High Holidays." It never came up again.
Was Hank Greenberg always uncomfortable with the idea of being a hero to American Jews?
Yes, he was very uncomfortable about it. Jews were constantly trying to honor him at banquets and give him gifts, and he turned both down, saying he just wanted to be a ballplayer. He never wanted to deny being Jewish but did not believe that it should give him a special standing.
How much did Detroit figure into his experience and his legend?
Had he played in New York his story might have been different. But he was in Detroit, a city with a small tightly knit Jewish community and a general public with a great deal of anti-Semitic feeling. In the years he was playing, two of the most notorious anti-Semites in the country, Father Coughlin and Henry Ford, were both spewing hate in Detroit.
What qualities defined him as an athlete?
Though his swing was unbelievably graceful, he was never considered a natural athlete. He was large, a bit awkward, and flat-footed. But he was also extremely powerful and the most hardworking player in the history of professional baseball. He spent hours before and after games practicing his swing and his fielding moves. Whenever his performance was lacking he worked on that particular move until he had it down. And in an age when other players such as Babe Ruth were out carousing, he kept himself in top physical condition year round.
What qualities most defined him as a man?
His humility, without a doubt.
This interview was conducted and published by the Yale University Press.