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Thoughts in the Hebrew month of Elul 2020

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

In this endless summer of discontent and despair, when even a trip to the grocery store felt perilous and baseball, that quintessential American game, had evaporated until very recently into the black hole of pastimes we used to enjoy, I’ve been reading books featuring baseball greats of the past that have evoked entire eras. One of these books, Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One, by Mark Kurlansky, published in 2011, as part of the Yale University’s Jewish Lives Series, resonated deeply with my own life, remembering my youthful love of baseball that, even as a girl, filled my summers in the Midwest with glorious sandlot games until September came around, school began again and I had to wait another year to continue those lingering days in the sun that still occupy a special place in my memory. Yet I was surprised to find that this story, which I had begun reading, expecting a pleasant respite from the difficult days at hand, also echoed deeply with our own times when we face not only a pandemic but once again the dark stain of racial and ethnic strife in our country. For all its inherent high ideals and opportunity, especially for Jews, this country has suffered from a continuous undercurrent of prejudice and racism that erupts with frequent regularity. The summer of 2020 was no exception.

What especially interested me about this book was Hank Greenberg’s response to the prejudice he encountered. Greenberg’s rise to fame took place in the 30s before World War II and any lingering nostalgia that this was a peaceful time in America’s past are shattered in Mark Kurlansky’s portrait of Greenberg’s life that moves beyond the iconic legend to the complexity of the times in which he lived. “The mythical Hank Greenberg had been created at the end of his second year in the majors, just as he was finding his stride as a leading player…Greenberg had never wanted to be known as the Jewish baseball player,” Kurlansky writes. "All he wanted to do was play ball. But it was his lot to play baseball in the most anti-Semitic period in American history.” It is clear that Greenberg wanted to play for his own love of the game without becoming a victim of Jewish stereotypes. Kurlansky observes that when Greenberg started his career as a Jewish ball player, there were few examples to follow. Jews were excluded from clubs and athletic organizations in Detroit where he began his career with the Detroit Tigers in l930. It was also in that city that Henry Ford and his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent promoted one of the most anti-Semitic of books ever written, still being used to promote anti-Semitism in our own time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a hoax that claimed an international plot by Jews to take over the world, and followed it, Kurlansky points out, by an anti-Semitic attack each week. Those attacks, translated into German, became influential in Hitler’s writing of Mein Kampf in his own rise to power, that blamed the Jews for Germany’s problems, particularly economic ones, in that pre-war period. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest in Detroit also gained a wide following with his virulent anti-Semitic radio broadcasts while Charles Lindbergh, famous for his solo 1927 transatlantic flight across the Atlantic, added to these anti-Semitic tropes by embracing Hermann Goering and expressing his fondness for “Nordic peoples.” Philip Roth made use of Lindbergh’s sentiment against the Jews in his novel, The Plot Against America in which Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in the l940 Presidential election and empowered anti-Semitism in America. Fascism and Nazism infected the world; in the United States, even though there were large protests against Nazism, there also existed an indifference to the increasingly dangerous plight of the Jews and a group of sympathizers for the Nazi Party. The author evokes in vivid detail the specter of anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and anti-Semitism in this period and the extent to which Greenberg was faced with the challenge of being able to simply “play ball.”

Baseball, in particular, for many Jews coming of age at that time was celebrated and enjoyed as that most American of games; authors, all of them male, such as Chaim Potok, who wrote The Chosen; Philip Roth in American Pastoral and Bernard Malamud, in The Natural expressed their deep feelings for baseball in their work. Kurlansky lists an entire roster of Jewish authors and the memorable books they wrote: poetic evocations of their youth as second generation Jews in which the game of baseball differentiated them from the difficult lives of their parents, who understandably, were less than enthusiastic about anything that would take them away from their studies. But it was much more than recreation for their sons. Their singular attraction to baseball gave their lives shape and structure; they used it as a metaphor for a new life in America, a country that at last afforded them freedom, mobility and acceptance—and for what it taught them about life itself, a subject Peter Miller explored in an award-winning documentary, “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.”

In The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn writes of the way his childhood in Brooklyn was entwined with baseball. Growing up, he explains it was not just a game to an American boy. It was his training field for life. It was also a world beyond time. Roger Angell reflects on this quality in The Summer Boys, “Time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game.” In speaking to men who played baseball in their youth, I learned that it was the thrill of the hit; the smack of the ball as it landed in your palm; the smell of the earth and the fresh air against your skin, but most of all, the sheer joy of pulling together with your teammates toward a common goal. Baseball was America. It represented limitless possibilities. But it was also a glimpse into a wider world for Jews like Hank Greenberg who longed to enter that world, one of the great players featured in Peter Miller’s film.

In Philip Roth’s memory, baseball was a “more perfect microcosm of reality, a vision that informed his fiction.” In an essay by Katy Waldman that appeared in The New Yorker (May 24, 2018) she wrote, “Baseball, eloquent of the last pastoral, revealed to me its elegiac shape, but for Roth, baseball was never just baseball—it was a theater for the energies of American life. “

In an interview in The Times, in l973, Roth reflected, “The sport embodies the country’s unattained ideals…a kind of secular church…that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals and antagonisms. The national sport was a graspable piece of Americana. In its mythic sense of itself, it was the literature of my boyhood.”

Roth’s eloquent tribute to the game was surely true for Hank Greenberg. Born Hyman Greenberg and known as Hymie in P.S. 44, Hank Greenberg grew up in the Bronx in a section known as Crotona Park, now part of the South Bronx, but at that time still green and wooded. The family was observant, like many families in Crotona Park; they went to synagogue, observed the holidays and kept kosher, but were not rigidly Orthodox. Greenberg’s experience with Hebrew School and his own bar mitzvah were a negative experience of going through the paces to please his parents, but without understanding the meaning of the words he was required to learn. At six-feet-four inches tall as a young man, with striking looks and a rugged frame, he felt most at home as an athlete instead of a student, playing every sport in high school and finally setting his sights on professional baseball, working every day with steady determination to perfect his swing. For Greenberg, baseball was not a metaphor for life. It was life and he always played to win. His dream came to fruition when he was picked for the Detroit Tigers in l930. It brought him into a world beyond Crotona Park. Unlike many of his peers with whom he had grown up, he welcomed the opportunity to move into the mainstream of American life. He played the first twelve of his 13 major league seasons for Detroit and continued playing for them as first baseman through the l930s and l940s. Famous for his swing, he is celebrated as one of the best hitters in baseball history with a batting average of over .300 in eight seasons.

Kurlansky describes him this way: “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.” He won two World Series championships with the Tigers in l935 and l945. An outstanding player, he is considered one of the greatest players in baseball history, chosen for the Baseball Hall of Fame and named twice as Most Valuable Award player. He was a hero to his fans, but most of all he became a hero to the Jewish people. It was never an honor he sought, nor felt he deserved, Kurlansky emphasizes, and adds, “He never accepted the definition of himself that his Jewish fans had cut out for him.” He did not call himself an observant Jew. Although he faced a great deal of prejudice and was subject to a continuous barrage of slurs, attempts to sabotage his hitting on the field by other players and anti-Semitic name-calling whenever he played, he always felt that ‘prejudice should spur you on to greater achievement rather than accept it and be licked by it.’”

The act that made him a hero became the defining moment of his life in l934 at the beginning of his career when he was only twenty-three and had to decide whether to play in a game that took place on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish religious calendar. It was a momentous decision that could have cut short his entire career. Kurlanksy writes of what was at stake: “The Tigers had emerged from mediocrity to become a real contender in the American League, with one of the strongest hitting combinations in baseball history. Hank Greenberg was a leading part of that winning combination, their star hitter, and the Detroit Tigers had a real chance to win their first pennant in twenty-five years against the Yankees.” The tension was high even though they still had some latitude: they were four games ahead of the Yankees by Rosh Hashanah. Whether Greenberg was going to play or not, became both a local topic in the city of Detroit and a national controversy that was discussed on radio and in the newspapers of the day. Without Greenberg, it was feared that the Tigers would lose. The consensus amongst religious authorities was that in Judaism such decisions are a matter of personal responsibility, although everyone, including rabbis weighed in on it, each with a different opinion. Kurlansky writes that Greenberg was “caught between the Jewish world and the baseball world.” Deeply conflicted, unsure of what he should do, on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the New Year, he went to services; he then played afterwards to hit two home runs; the second won the game in the ninth inning. He never regretted that decision, but it made him uneasy as he faced a more difficult test ten days later.

On Yom Kippur, with so much to lose personally in his own career and for his teammates, as well as for the city of Detroit, he faced what would become the most difficult decision of his life. The Jews of America wanted him to observe; the non-Jewish world wanted him to play. Despite his youth, he did not make the decision lightly. He could not please both of these demands and knew that the decision could only come from the most profound reaches of his own conscience. Although he was young, he knew that there was more at stake than a ball game. He later recalled that he really wanted to play, but he must have instinctively known that some decisions are larger than our own lives. If he played it would compromise his faith. The Jews were counting on him to make what they felt was the only right decision. It would also deeply hurt his parents, especially his mother. After much deliberation, he at last made a decision not to play. Kurlansky observes, “He went to synagogue to observe Yom Kippur.” The Tigers lost the game to the Yankees. The disappointment of that loss was palpable, even though the Tigers still won the pennant and qualified to play the Cardinals in the World Series. They lost, but Greenberg became famous as a “bulwark against anti-Semitism...Fans and reporters started to ignore the real Hank Greenberg”

Kurlansky writes, “The decision resonated far beyond what he could have imagined: it marked the beginning of the enduring myth of Hank Greenberg. In l935 he helped lead the Tigers to their first World Series title despite a broken wrist in Game Two, but for all his history of timely hits winning games at the last moment, this day on which he did not play is one of the most remembered moments of his career.”

We can never fully anticipate the repercussions of our actions. For Hank Greenberg who wanted to be remembered for his ability as an athlete and a ballplayer that act of moral courage made him famous for more than baseball in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. The Jewish ball players who came after him, including Al Rosen who was determined that every Jew in America would be proud of him because of his career as a Jew in baseball and Sandy Koufax who sat out Game I of the l965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, followed his lead. In the year l947 after serving in the army, which interrupted his career at its peak, Greenberg was one of the few players to publicly welcome Jackie Robinson who was breaching the color line in baseball as the first Black player in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, l947. It was Robinson who famously said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me…All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Greenberg, who considered himself a secular Jew whose initial dislike at being famous for that one day instead of his entire career in baseball, was followed later in his life by a recognition of what it meant to other Jews—and the country—to stand up for what he believed, to counter the taunts and abuses of players and fans with dignity and to have the strength of character and courage to resist persecution. He told The American Jewish Committee who interviewed him, “I wanted to lead an exemplary life” and added, “When I was playing, I resented being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but also as a great Jewish ballplayer. I realize how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the thirties.”

Kurlansky observes, “Jewish baseball begins with Hank Greenberg. He was the first important Jewish player, the first Jewish baseball star. Like all Jewish players, simply by playing baseball he was a symbol of assimilation…but because he refused to play on Yom Kippur, he was also a symbol of a refusal to assimilate—a paradox that did not seem to puzzle his fans.”

“That day when he went to a Detroit synagogue to pray rather than play baseball remained the only Yom Kippur he ever observed as an adult.”

In writing Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be A Hero, Mark Kurlansky has also laid bare the process of hero worship in America and the expectations we have of those we exalt while overlooking the actual individual. He moves far beyond the legend to present the man behind the myth and the heavy burden it placed on him, a burden so heavy it would appear that Hank Greenberg fled from it into a non-observance so all-consuming that he did not bring up his children as Jews. But it is also a study of the complexities we all possess. Our lives are frequently defined by one particular moment, often the best, at times the worst, without taking in the full spectrum of who we have been in our entirety. In its larger implications the story is, in addition, the study of anti-Semitism in a particular time and place in this country before World War II, a time of heightened and shocking antipathy to Jews that would end with the murder of millions of men, women and children in Europe. It was a time when a talented Jewish ballplayer could not go up to bat without being denigrated with anti-Semitic epithets. Yet I find it immensely encouraging that Hank Greenberg became a mentor to those who came after him and paved the way for other Jewish and Black sports figures, helping them down a similar path that had once been so painful for him. Without realizing it, through his own experience, he became the first of non-violent activists in sports to help transform the existing inequalities in our culture for those who came after him, a process that continues to our own day.

As I finished reading Hank Greenberg: the Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One in this summer of 2020, with the recent memory of Charlottesville and synagogue massacres, hate-filled screeds on social media and an alarming rise in anti-Semitic and racial violence, when so much is upended and needs to be healed as we look toward the Days of Awe of 2020, I believe that Hank Greenberg’s decision to uphold the highest ideals of his faith, in spite of the trials that he endured, speaks eloquently to our own day. I am filled with more hope than despair as I reflect upon single acts of courage that change, however small, the inequities of the world in which we make our home.

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