John Rosengren is the author most recently of a biography, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes. His other books include Hammerin’ Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year that Changed Baseball Forever, Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Player in the NFL (written with Esera Tuaolo), and Bladesof Glory: The True Story of a Young Team Bred to Win. He lives in Minneapolis.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Hank Greenberg?
A: Because he was one of the most significant figures in American history. As a Hall of Fame baseball player, he had this stage—the game in the 1930s and ‘40s was the national pastime—at a time when there was strong ethnic identity, much stronger than today.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, people grew up in neighborhoods surrounded by people from their [original] country. And anti-Semitism was not just in Europe, but in the United States. Along comes a guy who was shattering stereotypes, and gives Jews, before the state of Israel, a rallying point.
It’s a great story that had to be told and hadn’t been told well. I’m not Jewish, but I recognized his significance to Jews and non-Jews.
Q: Why did you begin the book with Hank Greenberg’s agony over whether or not to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year?
A: It shows Greenberg grappling with a very personal decision in the public spotlight, and emerging as a public figure because of his identity. If he played today, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. With Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun, their Jewishness is secondary.
For Hank Greenberg, there was his faith, his allegiance to his parents, versus his place in society, his civic duty, his struggle to assimilate. All of that was wrapped up in that dilemma. It was a good place to start.
Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
A: Several things. Writing this book, I became a fan of Hank Greenberg, and I wanted him to succeed, not just on the field but personally. His competitive nature seemed to undo him in his executive role [after he stopped playing]. I was disappointed in how he treated [baseball player] Al Rosen. I was surprised his wife was having an affair, and that’s why he got custody of his kids. I was surprised he worked for the Ford Motor Company.
Q: You write, “Hank became the face—and muscles—of Judaism in America. He single-handedly changed the way Gentiles viewed Jews.” How did he accomplish that?
A: In several ways. For everybody who thought that Jews were weak, here was [Greenberg], 6’4”, slugging home runs—that stereotype was gone. For people in Detroit, unemployment was over 40 percent in Detroit [during the Depression]. Banks were closing, people were really scared. The only thing they had to feel good about was baseball. And Hank Greenberg was leading the team.
I’m sure it surprised a lot of Gentiles to have warm feelings of admiration for this Jew: “Wow, I like this Jew!” A lot of people didn’t know a lot about Jews, and believed everything Henry Ford or Father Coughlin told them. Then to have Hank Greenberg come along, he was not trying to subvert Christianity—they thought, “Maybe Jews aren’t so bad after all.”
Q: You place Greenberg’s life in its historical context, with frequent references to the fate of the Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. What about the history unfolding during the years he was playing baseball makes his career especially noteworthy?
A: If Greenberg were simply from Canada, [for example] his success would mean nothing. Jews were being persecuted, and the persecution was [being] justified by attitudes about Jews. He was doing everything he could to [fight] that. It has enormous significance in the context of his career. Not just in Europe but here. You need Hank Greenberg to offset the foolishness of the Lindberghs and Fords of the world.
Q: What was it like for Greenberg to go from being a baseball star to being in the military during WWII?
A: Humbling. He took a huge pay cut. During his first stint, he was putting in his time. He was a good soldier, he worked hard, he got the job done. He tried to go back to baseball, but then there was Pearl Harbor. His most heroic action was when he reenlisted. He had some cushy jobs, but volunteering for duty in the China-Burma-India theater showed his willingness to do his part.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I just turned in a manuscript, a book about [baseball players] Juan Marichal and John Roseboro. It’s about reconciling, forgiveness, and redemption.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This is one reason why I wrote the book: Greenberg deserves a place of higher recognition than he has been given. He was a true pioneer. Babe Ruth [began] the idea of baseball player as celebrity. Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Clemente changed how Latin players [were viewed]. Hank Greenberg changed how Gentiles viewed Jews. He deserves a place with the cultural pioneers and in American society. Everyone my age  and younger needs to know more about Greenberg. I want to preserve his legacy.
This interview was conducted in partnership with Deborah Kalb. For more, visithttp://deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.