Interview With Sports Author John Rosengren
1. Why did you choose to write about Hank Greenberg? I did an article for the Baseball Hall of Fame's magazine Memories & Dreams about Greenberg's dramatic comeback in 1945, when he was the first star to return from military service and all eyes were on him to see if players could do it. While researching that article, I realized there was a lot more to Greenberg's story and that there had not been a biography written about him. So I set out to tell what I thought was a significant story, not just about a baseball player but about a man who became a hero to his generation.
2. Was he an inspiration to Jews the way Jackie Robinson was for African Americans? Greenberg stood 6'4" and weighed 220 pounds. While that might not be considered big by today's standards, it was huge in the '30s when the average ballplayer was only 5'11". He towered over contemporaries like Lou Gehrig. Being big and a home run hitter, Greenberg shattered the prevalent stereotype that Jews were weak and unathletic. At a time when Jews were being persecuted abroad and at home, he became a symbol of hope. " When you’re running around the jungle of the ghetto on the Lower East Side, you couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the sight of one of our guys looking like a Colossus,” Matthau said. “He eliminated for me all those jokes which start out: ‘Did you hear the one about the little Jewish gentleman?’”
As an aside, Greenberg was also instrumental in supporting Robinson during a critical time of his rookie year. In May, the Dodgers came to Pittsburgh, where Greenberg played his final season in 1947. Robinson had just gone public about the death threats he had received, then had Phillies players point bats like rifles at him. Greenberg and Robinson had a collision at first base that could have sparked a race riot, but instead Greenberg asked Jackie if he was okay and gave him some words of encouragement. Afterward Robinson said, "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."
3. What did you find rewarding - -and challenging -- about writing your book?The biggest challenge was when I realized that the Yale Press had scheduled a biography of Greenberg for publication prior to mine. That pushed me to work harder on mine so it was better. I plumbed resources previously unexplored like county court divorce records, Greenberg's military file and MLB daily batting logs to unearth new information. The reward was finding details that allowed me to shed new light on his story and/or to clear up misconceptions that had been previously published. His own son was surprised by one fact I unearthed about the widely told anecdote that the Detroit Free Press published a headline that said Happy New Year in Hebrew. I was able to set the record straight that the headline appeared on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, not after Greenberg hit two home runs that day as he used to tell people.
4. Baseball has changed immensely from when Hank played the game, but what still remains the same about the game? The game remains a treasure trove of history and lore passed from one generation to the next, but when Greenberg played it was truly the national pastime. The NFL and NBA did not exist. Baseball was the breeding ground for heroes and it alone held center stage in the media. On that stage, Greenberg became the most popular athlete of his generation in the spring 1941--more popular than Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams or Bob Feller--when he was the reigning AL MVP and drafted into the Army.
5. Why do so many readers enjoy a good biography, even about historical figures that have had books written about them previously? I think we enjoy biographies because we're drawn to the stories of others who can inspire us. They let us realize our possibilities as humans, what good--and, in some cases, evil--we're capable of. Greenberg does not disappoint in this regard. He teaches us about courage, integrity and dignity.
For more information, please consult: www.hankgreenberg.net
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