Hank Greenberg in 1938, by Ron Kaplan, blends geo-politics and baseball. As Hitler was gaining power in Germany, Greenberg was a premiere power hitter for the Detroit Tigers. It shows how Hank Greenberg, represented by the Greatest Generation, made a decisive contribution to America’s society.
The book explores two battles taking place simultaneously, Greenberg battling at the plate while his people, were battling to escape the atrocities of the Nazis. Readers learn how Greenberg, normally hesitant to speak about the anti-Semitism, said, “I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.” In a small sense Greenberg foiled Hitler’s attempt to portray the Jews as weak and was not the stereotypic Jew, considering “Hammerin Hank” was powerfully built, towering with a 6’4” frame and 200 pounds, a relative giant in those days. A quote in the book hammers the point home, “He was a legendary ballplayer to many, especially in Jewish households…He was the first truly great Jewish ballplayer, and ironically a power hitter in the 1930s when the position of Jews in the world-especially, of course, in Hitler’s Germany-grew weaker.”
He was not someone who would sit on the sidelines and decided after America entered World War II he would enlist. Kaplan noted, “Not only was he one of the first Major Leaguers to enlist in the military, but he was discharged on December 5th, two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was driving back to his home when he heard the news and immediately re-enlisted. All told, Greenberg spent three full seasons and a part of two others during his prime playing years and was fully prepared never to play baseball again. Not to mention that for most of his time in the service he was doing active duty. Many celebrities and athletes spent their time going on morale-boosting tours, which was also important, but much less dangerous.”
But it is also a baseball book, where Kaplan gives a play by play of Greenberg’s attempt to break the single season baseball home run record of Babe Ruth. Kaplan explained, “There was a lot of pressure on him and he just fell short. There's an appendix in the book that shows how the pitchers he faced over the last month or so pitched to him and the numbers are pretty close to what they did during the rest of the year. Unfortunately he fell three short of breaking the record of sixty home runs.”
What sets Kaplan’s book apart from other baseball books is his ability to recap a very exciting season, comparing what was happening on the baseball field to what was happening in the world arena. Anyone who has never heard of Hank Greenberg should read this book, because, as Kaplan describes him, “Not only was he a great baseball player but “he was a leader, a gentleman, a mentor, but quietly, not in a ‘look at me’ kind of way. In all my research, I didn't find one negative comment about him.”