Monday, May 23, 2011
Hank Greenberg was one of baseball’s top players of his era.
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 Mark Kurlansky writes in Hank Greenburg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One, 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 conversation, Kurlansky explores with us 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 in his story 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 is most recently the author of The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís. Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.