So much of Hank Greenberg's life was prescient of America's future: the battle for human rights, the growth of America during the fabulous fifties and Roger Maris' challenge of Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. In a very real sense, Greenberg lived all of these events years before the rest of America became aware of them. He was not only a remarkable Hall of Fame baseball player, he was a remarkable man.
Ira Berkow integrates Greenberg's own words with quotes from family and friends, as well as his own observations. Greenberg died before the book was finished. Yet, the story is complete as written. The book is about a baseball immortal, to be sure, but it is truly about the growth of American in the twentieth century, from a courageous neophyte on the world scene to a world power.
Along with the growth come the growing pains. The first Jew was an easy target (there were others, but he was the first prominent player). He was a big man (6'4' and 215 pounds four generations ago). As the ethnic epithets streamed forth from the opposing dugout, as experienced by Greenberg, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, came the gradual reawakening of America's sense of fair play and decency, slowly. Did the changes in baseball mirror the changes in America, or vice versa?
Berkow and Greenberg do an excellent job of weaving the issues of the star's ethnicity and his maturing as a baseball player. The jibes from the opposition, instead of disheartening Greenberg, served as motivation, as if the anti-Semitism was turned into fuel for the competitive fire driving Greenberg. His desire to be the best came from within. He wanted to be the best ballplayer, the best first baseman. Then, at the request of the Tigers, he wanted to be the best left fielder. He claimed to not be a "natural player." But he admits to being an exceptional athlete. Greenberg says that if the NBA had existed in his prime, he might have chosen basketball.
Later, when he moved into management, he would become the best general manager in baseball. He moved in and out of circles where very few Jews were welcome. He did so with ease. The nature of his relationship with Bill Veeck was typical: a great deal of mutual respect, but also competitive. He greeted Jackie Robinson's entrance into baseball and openly befriended him. He fought for the player's pension and for free agency from the management side. He could foresee the changes that were coming and thought the best deal for the owners was to get ahead of the curve. He thought of players as more than chattel.
Even though he did not finish college, he turned his baseball earnings ($35,000 a year during the Depression) into several hundred thousand by the time he retired. He became a part owner of the Indians and later the White Sox. He was successful on Wall Street. Through all of his success as a businessman, he remains modest. He understands the economics of baseball and the reserve clause, but he sees the potential for far greater things as he learns baseball marketing from Bill Veeck.
Greenberg's baseball record covers 16 years in the Tigers' organization, but only eight full years as a player and parts of several others, with one full year at Pittsburgh. He lost four prime years to the war effort, both in terms of baseball skills and potential earnings. Greenberg was earning $55,000 a year from the Tigers at this point. He was one of the first players to enlist (before Pearl Harbor) and did not return as quickly as he might have. As in all things, he was very modest about his contribution to the war effort, choosing to focus instead on those who gave their lives for others.
Throughout his life, in baseball, in business and his personal life, Greenberg expressed a quiet confidence that comes from competence and optimism. He was Jewish. It was part of who he was, but he did not use that as a cause nor a reason for what happened in his life. It served as a motivator for success and as a way to understand the struggles of others. Much of his talent was natural, but he did the one thing that many natural athletes do not do: he worked to perfect it! He did this on the baseball field, and later in life he did this with his professional life. Everyone who speaks about Greenberg in Berkow's text does so out of admiration and love of the complete man, not just the athlete.
The book closes in a poignant and personal way, with discussions by his children and a letter to his wife to be read posthumously. His son's comments were most revealing, "While others may have focused simply on his heroics, I came to see my dad as a man who embodied many paradoxes. A future Hall of Famer who thought of himself as awkward and toiled long and hard to achieve prominence. A prolific slugger who helped his team win the World Series by bunting....He had a strong sense of pride in his accomplishments and yet among friends he was the first to poke fun at himself and laugh at his idiosyncrasies." Greenberg once said, when he was encouraged to write his autobiography, "I don't want to write my story yet because I keep thinking that one day I'm going to do something really great, and I want to wait until that time to write my book." What more could he have done?
When I was a young man in the early 1970s, I wrote to Greenberg for his autograph, as I did many other retired players. He answered promptly and answered a brief question that I had asked in my letter. I asked him what his favorite memory was. He said he loved to play the game and to compete, especially in the World Series. At every stage of his life, Greenberg competed, yes, but he did so with class, grace and dignity.
This is a worthwhile read, not just for the baseball fan, but to better understand the changes in America that pervaded the twentieth century.
AHP Rating: 3 Balls
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