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Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want To Be One (Jewish Lives)
Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want To Be One (Jewish Lives)
Mark Kurlansky
Yale University Press, 2011
192 pp., 26.00

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Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil (Icons of America)
Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil (Icons of America)
Jerome Charyn
Yale University Press, 2011
192 pp., 24.00

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Pujols: More Than the Game
Pujols: More Than the Game
Tim Ellsworth; Scott Lamb
Thomas Nelson Inc, 2011
258 pp., 24.99

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Michael R. Stevens


Greenberg, DiMaggio, and Pujols

Plus: 2011 season preview.

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April 1, and we're already a day into the season. Clearly the time has come to take stock of baseball for 2011. It's the hundredth anniversary of Shoeless Joe Jackson's first full season in the majors, with the Indians, when he hit .408, and also the hundredth anniversary of Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg's birth to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents in New York's Lower East Side. Seventy years ago this season, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 games and etched himself into the public psyche as the last pure memory before Pearl Harbor's apocalypse. A mere ten years ago, a heavy-legged infielder/outfielder one season removed from junior college debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals as a surprise Spring Training roster addition, and Albert Pujols has proceeded to have the most dominant first decade by any hitter in the history of the game. So, we could call this a special anniversary edition, though I won't summon the 1981 strike season (with the Yankees unable to vanquish the Dodgers in the absence of my beloved and grieved Thurman Munson), nor the 1991 worst-to-first Braves-Twins clash, with all its nail-biting pitcher's duels and plays at the plate, nor the 1971 All-Star Game, with Reggie Jackson hitting a shot off the right-field light-stanchions that glowed only slightly less than his garish neon green A's uniform. But we have enough anniversaries to comment upon, even without these, and recent books about the odd triumvirate of Greenberg, DiMaggio, and Pujols will lead the way toward our "out of the gate" 2011 predictions.

Mark Kurlansky's volume in the Jewish Lives Series from Yale UP bears the full title Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One, and that querulous subtitle could fit Joe DiMaggio from a certain angle, and Albert Pujols as well, from another angle. None of our three transcendent hitters could be called comfortable with superstardom. For each, comfort evolved on the greensward of the baseball field, especially in the geometric constraint of the right-handed batter's box. But for Hyman "Hank" Greenberg, the weight of expectations of the millions of American Jews of the 1930s and '40s would always weigh upon his broad shoulders.

Kurlansky begins his volume with the much-embellished story of Greenberg's decision not to play on Yom Kippur, 1934, even though he was not an observant Jew and his Tigers were in the midst of a pennant-race, and even though he'd played on Rosh Hashanah nine days earlier, when the Yankees were a few games closer. As Kurlansky portrays it, "In baseball terms, he had played the game when he was needed and sat out the game when he was not. But the story is remembered, even by non-Jews, in Jewish terms: he would not play on Yom Kippur. 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."

Indeed, this sort of gentle irony seems to have followed Greenberg throughout his quietly, consistently excellent career as a baseball player and later baseball executive. He wanted only to hone his craft as a player while going to high school in the Bronx, and did so perhaps because he was so tall and large that he was embarrassed to interact with other kids socially. He was great, to some extent, because he was shy. He was the first bona-fide Jewish superstar, but Judaism as a belief system played little or no role in his life. He became a famous Jew by choosing a route to escape Jewish identity, the suspicious realm of baseball. He was a giant of a man, muscle-bound and fearless, but he mostly ignored and responded passively to the constant stream of anti-Semitic heckling from fans and opposing players. Kurlansky does report that "He did once walk over to the Yankee dugout and challenge the entire team to a fight. The entire bench looked away." This points to perhaps the deepest paradox about Hank: "Gentleman is another word used regularly to describe Greenberg—along with tough." And because he was also "the first active major leaguer to enlist after the Pearl Harbor attack," the lore grew around Hank that he signed up to fight Hitler for the sake of his Jewish kinfolk. As it turns out, he joined the Army Air Corps and served in a relatively pleasant role in the Pacific Theater. He was, from start to finish, a dutiful man, not a crusader.

Greenberg's story goes from quietly good to quietly better, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he found that most elusive prize of the ballplayer—success and satisfaction after retiring from the playing field. Indeed, when he joined the ownership team of the Indians in the late '40s, with the quirky and brilliant Bill Veeck, not only did his work ethic transpose to the new setting, but also his defiance of the bigotry that he'd faced down throughout his career: "Veeck and Greenberg had been partners in a grand plan to integrate baseball. While Veeck, the general manager and part owner, signed top Negro Leagues players, Greenberg, also a part owner, directed the farm system and signed many young black players. In the early 1950's, as major league teams were finally starting to acquire black players, Greenberg signed more than anyone else in baseball." One senses the enduring purpose in a man who, late in life, "almost never talked about baseball anymore," but not because of bitterness or fecklessness. Instead, "he was more interested in the ideas stimulated by the history books and biographies he was constantly reading. He and Mary Jo became close to Karl Fleming, a Newsweek journalist noted for his coverage of the civil rights movement." Here was a man who, if not entirely comfortable with his symbolic image, was nevertheless always comfortable in his own skin.

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