Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One. Mark Kurlansky, Jewish Lives, 164 pages, $25.
Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball. Rebecca Alpert, Oxford University Press, 236 pages, $27.95.
Unlike football and basketball, which venerate their current athletes as obviously the fastest and strongest and most talented (how many young fans of Michael Jordan even know who Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell were?), baseball honors its past. Like Judaism, which recognizes the greatness of previous leaders and of previous generations, baseball awards the title of its Golden Era to the years of the 1920s, the 1930s and the 1940s, when the “live ball,” home run-hitting style of play emerged. The home run records of Babe Ruth have long been eclipsed, but no subsequent player has challenged The Babe’s role as the best ever.
The mythical days of the National Pastime hold a special place for Jewish fans, whether in the storied career of Hank Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish superstar, who nearly equaled Babe Ruth’s single season home run record and sat out a game on Yom Kippur in a time of growing anti-Semitism, or the largely unknown and unhonored men who served as partners with black America in promoting the sport’s separate black leagues, then in ending segregation in baseball.
Rabbi Alpert, associate professor of religion and women’s studies at Temple University, and Kurlansky, an author of 20 books, both bring a scholar’s research and writer’s grace to their subjects.
Kurlansky’s book, part of Yale University Press’ engaging Jewish Lives series, provides a fresh perspective and historical context to Greenberg, depicting him honestly as a man who had limited natural ability but became a star by dint of hard work and year-round conditioning. Although an indifferent student in high school, Greenberg widened his intellect through a dedicated regimen of reading, and while thoroughly secular, he took a stand for his community — if not for a religious principle — by missing a late season game on Yom Kippur in 1934, leaving a mark on Jewish history that remained unique until the arrival of Sandy Koufax and Shawn Green decades later.
Greenberg, who changed his first name from Hymie but refused to change his last name, lived the rest of his life as a Jewish hero, a stature that gave him great discomfort. “Greenberg had never wanted to be known as the Jewish baseball player,” Kurlansky writes. “All he wanted to do was play baseball. But it was his lot to play baseball in the most anti-Semitic period in American history, and in times of anti-Semitism, Jews and anti-Semites alike garner attention. Whether he liked it or not, Greenberg was never going to be just a baseball player.”
Then, in his second full season with the Detroit Tigers, while the team faced a pennant race with the New York Yankees, this son of an Orthodox family from the Bronx decided not to play on Yom Kippur, 10 days after — with a rabbi’s approval — he had played on Rosh HaShanah. “The decision resonated far beyond what he could have imagined,” Kurlansky writes. “It marked the beginning of the enduring myth of Hank Greenberg.”
Kurlansky tells about Greenberg’s financial savvy (negotiating his own contracts, he earned the second-highest salary in baseball, behind only Babe Ruth), his encounters with anti-Semitism (“he spent the better part of twenty years on the receiving end of anti-Semitic abuse in ballparks”), his run at Babe Ruth’s record 60-home-run season (“there is no evidence of conspiracy” on the part of anti-Semitic, opposing pitchers “against Greenberg’) and his army service (at the height of his career, he volunteered for the U.S Army during World War II, spending three years as a soldier).
The contours of Greenberg’s life are already known; Kurlansky succeeds in adding subtlety.
Rabbi Alpert’s book faces a different challenge — telling a story few people today know.
Her book, on the Jews — mostly businessmen and journalists — who were part of black baseball from the formation of the so-called Negro Leagues in the 1920s until the separate leagues ended three generations later with the breaking of baseball’s color line, grew out of her childhood admiration for Jackie Robinson, the first known African-American in modern-day Major League Baseball. Interested in the relationship between American Jews and “black baseball,” she discovered that “Jews came unexpectedly ‘out of left field’ to play a significant — although decidedly less heroic and more complex —– role in the history of black baseball than I could ever have imagined.”
Though the cover of “Out of Left Field” shows entrepreneur Max Rosner in a 1917 team photo with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the book goes beyond Jewish ownership of black teams.
The rabbi, with significant historical background, tells of Jewish journalists who argued for the desegregation of baseball, a black Jewish team in Virginia, of Jews’ role in integrating sports. Of possibly greatest interest is Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters who had an active role in the Negro Leagues and helped the first black players get contracts in Japanese baseball.
For many, ownership of black baseball teams was primarily a business decision, Rabbi Alpert writes. “Anti-Semitism made Jews, and Eastern European immigrant Jews in particular, unwelcome in many traditional white businesses. European immigrants found opportunities in marginal or newly developing businesses, especially entertainment and sports,” she writes. “Small businessmen who lacked the financial resources to own teams in organized white baseball were in a position to make substantial sums in the undercapitalized world of black baseball.”
These owners, according to Rabbi Alpert, “were outsiders who lived on the other side of the racial divide. Their Jewishness sometimes made them the object of skepticism and antipathy. But at other times, being Jewish, and their presumed Jewish acumen, added to their power. Jewishness also occasionally inspired feelings of kinship based on the connection between oppressed minorities.”
In retrieving the story of the Jewish role in black baseball, Rabbi Alpert fills in an illustrative and symbolic gap in history, offering an insight into the relations between blacks and Jews that strengthened during the Civil Rights era and subsequently became frayed.
“The Jews of black baseball ended in obscurity, their customs and practices no longer acceptable,” she writes. “But as the children of immigrants and descendants of slaves, they accomplished more than was expected of them. Their lives and legacies confirm the complexity of black and Jewish identities and relationships, and underscore the importance of baseball as a location for understanding mid-twentieth-century America.”