New book captures ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ in pivotal year
Local author Ron Kaplan extols slugger’s Jewish pride, patriotism
With a lifetime of loving sports, there are many topics Ron Kaplan could sink his teeth into. Add to that passion his time working first for the American Jewish Congress and then for almost a decade with NJJN, and — well, you can see why his publisher saw him as the perfect guy to tackle the subject of his new book.
“Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” (Sports Publishing, 2017) is about the great Jewish baseball player as he was trying to make history on the diamond at the same time that prejudice against Jews was reaching a murderous boiling point in Europe.
As an author with a passion for capturing new stories, Kaplan faced a challenge of his own. There were already 10 books about Greenberg, but none had brought together the unique combination of factors that made 1938 a turning point in baseball and world history. Kaplan spoke to Greenberg’s son Steven, a businessman, who was cordial but not interested in getting deeply involved in the project, and to others who knew him, including celebrated sports reporter, columnist, and writer Ira Berkow, who had worked with Greenberg on his memoir. Folks at the Baseball Hall of Fame helped with research, and Kaplan mined newspapers from the period.
They opened a window into a time when new cars sold for $600, and refrigerators for $200, and the awareness of the conflict brewing in Europe mushroomed. In the course of 1938, Kaplan said, reports on the growing Nazi threat went from small paragraphs to front-page stories with huge headlines.
As Kaplan — an award-winning journalist and blogger — writes, “Hammerin’ Hank” was coming off a stellar season with the Detroit Tigers, during which he hit 40 home runs and 184 RBIs. But as he was “on course for Babe Ruth’s home run record, Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was beginning to take shape.” Jews across the United States, worried about looming threats overseas, “looked to Greenberg as a symbol of hope. 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.’”
In the present climate, Kaplan told NJJN, with arguments roiling about Syrian refugees, the popularity of “America first” slogans, and growing anti-Semitism, “unfortunately, some of the issues from 1938 are still with us.”
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,” the author said.
That quality was called into play in 1938 as the tall powerfully-built slugger — one of the few Jews in the game, playing for the Tigers in one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the country — tried to break the Babe’s home-run record. While crowds loved him and much of the country cheered him on, there were those who didn’t want to see a Jew claim that crown. Kaplan said it’s thought that some pitchers deliberately walked him to prevent his reaching the goal.
“But Greenberg refused to ever use anti-Semitism as an excuse,” Kaplan said.
However, 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 Major League’s first black player, something Robinson mentioned repeatedly to his own biographers.
Having his legacy on the line didn’t divert Greenberg’s attention from what was happening in the wider world. In a brief overview of what came after 1938, Kaplan describes how Greenberg was one of the first baseball pros to enlist in the army, in 1941. Right in his prime playing years, he put the game aside and entered the military; then, 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 he 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, and his team won the 1945 World Series.
In writing this book Kaplan drew on a lifetime of sports fandom. After all, his first book was “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read before They Die,” and it’s clear that — starting as a baseball, tennis, and squash-playing kid in Brooklyn — he devoured all those and many other sports tomes.
Kaplan lives in Montclair with his wife, Faith Krausman, a veterinarian and also an author, and their daughter, Rachel Kaplan, a photographer. They are members of Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair.
His second book, “The Jewish Olympics: The History of the Maccabiah Games,” published in 2015, broke ground on a subject that had received almost no coverage. His writing has also appeared in, among other outlets, Huffington Post, Mental Floss, Baseball America, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and ForeWord Magazine. He writes about baseball books and other media at RonKaplansBaseballBookshelf.com.
Next up, if Kaplan stays with his current game plan, is a work about players who were, well, “next up.” Provisionally titled “On Deck to History,” it is planned as a survey of the views of players waiting their turn at bat and on shpilkes watching as some of the greatest moments in the sport took place.
Kaplan cited an example, also about another record held by “The Bambino”: Dusty Baker, who was on deck when Hank Aaron hit the home run that broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime record of 714. It is just such a moment that this storyteller can’t resist.
“Hank Greenberg in 1938” is available from independent booksellers, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.