Hank Greenberg: Always an Accidental Hero

The Detroit Tigers could really use Hank Greenberg right about now. The Cleveland Indians win on August 9 added up to an unlucky 13th straight loss for the Tigers against the team. Of course, wishing for a star player from half a decade ago would probably only contribute to the half-truths and misunderstandings that naturally clutter up a celebrity’s history. We should study the current Tigers in their era and Hank in his—separately. The myths surrounding Hank Greenberg, though, prove that the media can shape a person into whatever symbol it needs and the fans will invariably follow. Mark Kurlansky’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One shows us how the real man, not the Jewish hero or baseball icon, actually thought and lived.

Although he is best remembered for not playing on Yom Kippur, thereby creating his image as a Jewish rights activist, the media attached various messages to Greenberg that many baseball players of his era had to address. World War II gave journalists several opportunities to reinvent sports figures for their stories. Five hundred major league baseball (MLB) players served in the military during the war, of which Greenberg was the first active MLB player to enlist. The press, naturally, wanted to make their sports hero into a war hero as well, deciding he was a “patriot” for requesting to be moved overseas when, in fact, he inspected bombers and was never trained for combat.

Later, post-war desire for normalcy convinced Americans that “if Joe DiMaggio could hit them into the upper deck in Yankee Stadium, if Hank Greenberg could slam them high over the left field wall in Detroit once more, everything would be all right again.” Greenberg, however, described the 1945 World Series as “a comedy of errors” since the teams were comprised of either top players who were coming back from three- to four-year breaks or rookie wartime replacements.

The most important title that Greenberg holds is defender of Jewish Americans. Kurlansky explains that this was neither the result of his own intention nor entirely that of the press, either. Media headlines were replete with stereotypical jokes in the days leading up to the Yom Kippur game, and Greenberg never wanted attention for religious reasons. But that a successful, famous Jewish baseball player existed in America at a time when Father Coughlin used his radio show to condone Nazi attacks on European Jews and when Henry Ford financially backed an anti-Semitic newspaper already made Greenberg important enough. His sitting out game day in the decade between World Wars was an accident of history, but like the light bulb, one of those accidents that ended up lasting far longer than the perpetrator originally expected.

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