Hank Greenberg batting for the Detroit Tigers in 1935. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-The Sporting News Archives)
Hank Greenberg batting for the Detroit Tigers in 1935. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-The Sporting News Archives)

New book pitches Hank Greenberg’s momentous 1938

With a lifetime of loving and writing about sports, Ron Kaplan has many topics he can sink his teeth into. Add that passion to his time working for the American Jewish Congress and then for nearly a decade for the New Jersey Jewish News, and one can see why he was the perfect guy to tackle the subject of his new book.

Published in April, “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” is about the Jewish Hall of Famer as he was trying to make baseball history at the same time that prejudice against Jews was reaching a murderous boiling point in Europe.

But Kaplan faced a challenge: There were already at least 10 books about the Detroit Tigers slugger, as well as Aviva Kempner’s award-winning documentary, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”

cover of the book features a black and white photo of greenberg taking a swing at the plateKaplan, however, set out to bring together the unique combination of factors that made 1938 a turning point in baseball and world history.

He spoke to those who knew Greenberg, including sportswriter Ira Berkow, who had worked with the player on his memoir. Folks at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum helped with research, and Kaplan mined newspapers from the period.

In the course of 1938, Kaplan said, reports on the growing Nazi threat went from small paragraphs to front-page stories with huge headlines, while the United States remained reluctant to accept Jewish refugees trying to flee Nazi oppression.

In 1937, Greenberg hit 40 homers and drove in a colossal total of 184 runs. But in 1938, as he was “on course for Babe Ruth’s home run record, Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was beginning to take shape,” Kaplan wrote. Jews across the United States, worried about looming threats overseas, “looked to Greenberg as a symbol of hope,” Kaplan added. He finished the 1938 season with 58 home runs (two shy of Ruth’s record) and 147 RBIs.

“Though normally hesitant to speak about the anti-Semitism he dealt with, the slugger still knew the role he was playing for so many of his people, saying, ‘I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.’”

Delving deep into Greenberg’s life, talking to those who knew him and reading everything available, Kaplan affirmed his highest expectation.

“He was always a mensch,” said the author, an award-winning journalist and author of two blogs: Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf and Kaplan’s Korner on Jews and Sports. He is the author of “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die” and “The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games.”

In 1938, the tall, powerfully built Greenberg — one of the few Jews in the game, playing in one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the country — tried to break Ruth’s home run record. While crowds loved him and much of the country cheered him on, some didn’t want to see a Jew claim the crown from the mighty Babe. Kaplan said the belief was that some pitchers deliberately walked Greenberg to prevent his reaching the goal.

“But Greenberg refused to ever use anti-Semitism as an excuse,” said Kaplan, who noted the first baseman had a slow start and a rainy spring forced the Tigers to play a series of fatiguing late-season doubleheaders.

Greenberg, who died in 1986, was always mindful of prejudice. His last year as a player coincided with Jackie Robinson’s first, and he made his support and respect clear to the first black player in the major leagues — something Robinson mentioned repeatedly to his own biographers.

Greenberg’s success on the field did not divert his attention from what was happening in the wider world. Kaplan described how Greenberg was one of the first baseball pros to enlist in the Army, in 1941, putting the game aside in his prime playing years. After an honorable discharge, he re-enlisted in the Army Air Forces, serving until the end of the war.

“He was a celebrity but he didn’t just do morale-boosting tours with no active duty,” Kaplan said. “He was actively involved, on bombers in the Chinese theater and the Burma theater.”

Only toward the end of the war did Greenberg take a less active role, serving in a more administrative capacity. And then, with characteristic aplomb, he went right back to playing for the Tigers, leading the team to the 1945 World Series title.

This story was distributed by JTA on behalf of New Jersey Jewish News.

Elaine Durbach

New Jersey Jewish News contributor