Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One
by Mark Kurlansky
One of the reasons baseball fans so love the sport is that it involves certain physical acts of beauty. And one of the most beautiful sights in the history of baseball was Hank Greenberg's swing. His calmly poised body seemed to have some special set of springs with a trigger release that snapped his arms and swept the bat through the air with the clean speed and strength of a propeller. But what is even more extraordinary than his grace and his power is that in Detroit of 1934, his swing—or its absence—became entwined with American Jewish history.
Though Hank Greenberg was one of the first players to challenge Babe Ruth's single-season record of sixty home runs, it was the game Greenberg did not play for which he is best remembered. With his decision to sit out a 1934 game between his Tigers and the New York Yankees because it fell on Yom Kippur, Hank Greenberg became a hero to Jews throughout America. Yet, as Kurlansky writes, he was the quintessential secular Jew, and to celebrate him for his loyalty to religious observance is to ignore who this man was.
In this splendid biography, Mark Kurlansky explores the truth behind the slugger's legend: his Bronx boyhood, his spectacular discipline as an aspiring ballplayer, the complexity of his decision not to play on Yom Kippur, and the cultural context of virulent anti-Semitism in which his career played out. What Kurlansky discovers is a man of immense dignity and restraint with a passion for sport who became a great reader—a man, too, who was an inspiration to the young Jackie Robinson, who said, "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."
“Mark Kurlansky, a historian and a fan, zeroes in on Greenberg like Hammerin' Hank teeing off on a fastball."
--San Francisco Chronicle
“The prolific Kurlansky has outdone himself.”Jan Gardner, Boston Sunday Globe
“It's the best of the lot because it kept surprising me.”Steven V. Roberts, The Washington Post
“Mark Kurlansky’s scholarly slice of Hank Greenberg is always winning…Kurlansky is refreshingly outward-looking. Everything is put in context, especially the relationship of Jews to sports and sports to Jews as a path to assimilation.” Bill Scheft, New York Times Book Review
“Kurlansky's...volume puts a fascinating period of sports history into a vivid cultural context.”Publishers Weekly
“A graceful appreciation.”Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
“Mark Kurlansky, a historian and a fan, zeroes in on Greenberg like Hammerin' Hank teeing off on a fastball."Allen Barra, San Francisco Chronicle, Newark Star-Ledger
“Kurlansky’s book is an excellent addition to the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. It is, I suspect, no accident that most of the titles, both those already published and the projected volumes deal with secular Jewish lives. A few of those lives, like the one Kurlansky has given us in this well-written and unpretentious biography, may also speak of the need to hit."Leonard Kriegel, Forward
“This account of Greenberg's life is thorough, insightful and well-written. It achieves distinction by describing his character and career, setting them against the background of a turbulent era in Jewish history."Morton Teicher, Jewish Journal