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‘Hero of Heroes’ captures legacy of Hank Greenberg, the forgotten Tiger

The so-called “Hebrew Hammer” played for the Detroit Tigers and became a hero for Jewish Americans before, during, and after World War II.

Hank Greenberg
Library of Congress
Hank Greenberg in 1937

Like most baseball fans around this time of year, Minneapolis writer and author John Rosengren itches for the sights and sounds of the summer game. Lucky for spring training-fevered appetites everywhere, Rosengren scratched that itch by writing a biography of Hank Greenberg, the so-called “Hebrew Hammer” who played for the Detroit Tigers and became a hero for Jewish Americans before, during, and after World War II. 

Rosengren has penned several sports book, and when the Minneapolis-based author’s “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library) hits next week, he’ll be hosting numerous events, including a March 6 reading at Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis. Rosengren chatted with MinnPost last week about Greenberg’s lasting impact on baseball and America.

MinnPost: Greenberg’s heyday was the ’30s and ’40s. How did you first hear about him, and what intrigued you about his story?

John Rosengren: About 10 years ago I heard a piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about a documentary that had been made about his life. 

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Before that, I had never heard of him, even though I’m a big baseball fan. My knowledge and history of the game was pretty much limited to the ‘70s, when I grew up. I grew up in the Twin Cities, so I was a Twins fan and a Met Stadium fan, and I used to argue with my dad that Rod Carew was a better hitter than Ted Williams; I’ve since conceded the argument. Williams could hit for power.

While researching an article I was writing on dramatic season-ending home runs, I read Josh Pragers’ book “The Echoing Green,” about Bobby Thomson’s home run in ’51 and came across Greenberg’s 1945 ninth-inning grand slam that clinched the pennant for the Tigers. I realized there’s a lot more to Greenberg’s story that’s never really been told. He recorded his memories and Ira Berkow put it into a book after Greenberg died, but it wasn’t much of a narrative and I thought there was a place for a biography.

MP: It’s a great, if surprisingly little-known, story: America’s first Jewish sports star.

John Rosengren
John Rosengren

JR: The fact that he was Jewish was foremost, because he became this beacon of hope to Jews during a time of intense turmoil and anti-Semitism. Hitler was doing his thing in Europe, but there was also huge anti-Semitism here at home, where Jews were barred from housing complexes; there were signs at beaches ‘No Dogs No Jews’; hotels wouldn’t put ‘em up, universities wouldn’t let them in, businesses wouldn’t hire ‘em, etc. 

At the same time, there were stereotypes about Jews being weak and un-athletic. And along comes this 6-4, 220-pound guy at a time when the average major league baseball player was 5-11. You know, you see this photo of Greenberg and [Lou] Gehrig, and Greenberg towers over Gehrig; he shattered those stereotypes by slugging home runs, and just as Italian-Americans rallied around Joe DiMaggio, Jewish-Americans rallied around Hang Greenberg.

Baseball truly was the national pastime then, and the fact that he was on this national stage at this time all intrigued me. There was also a huge controversy surrounding his induction into the Army. This major national debate waged about weighing individual capitalistic interests against the patriotic duty of all civilians to serve, because he said, “These are my prime playing years. I don’t want to go in the Army for $29 a month and give up my $55,000-a-year salary.”

At the time he was the highest-paid player in baseball, and that was prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and World War II. When he was drafted into the Army in the spring of ’41, he was the biggest name in baseball. Joe DiMaggio hadn’t had his hitting streak yet, Ted Williams hadn’t hit .400, [Babe] Ruth had retired, Gehrig had retired and died.

He did his hitch, which ended just before Pearl Harbor. He re-enlisted and served after Pearl Harbor, and came back to play baseball in 1945 before any of the other big names. He missed 47 months of playing baseball, and he hadn’t played ball his whole time in the service. He comes back and hits a home run his first game back.

MP: You’re obviously very passionate about solidifying Greenberg’s legacy. Part of writing a book like this is to champion the subject. Why now for Greenberg?

JR: I found the guy fascinating. For me, it was “Here’s a story that hasn’t been told.” He’s one of a handful of Tigers who are in the Hall Of Fame, and there’s a statue of him at Comerica Park, and people of our parent’s generation know who he is and Jews know who he is. But for me and my generation – to me the golden age of sports was the ‘70s – nobody knows who Hank Greenberg is. It hasn’t been told the way Gehrig’s or Ruth’s or Jackie Robinson’s stories have been told, and I thought there was a real need for it to be told.

Because of his place in the game, Hank Greenberg changed the way that Americans viewed Jews,  and in turn how Jews viewed themselves. He died in 1986. He had a transformative effect on not only the game but on society, and the fact that he’s been forgotten and all these people who saw him play are dying off lent a sense of urgency to telling it now.