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Open a Book on Opening Day
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Open a Book on Opening Day

New titles look at Jewish heroes of the national pastime

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It’s not quite one of the Four Questions, but Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell devoted an entire best-selling collection of his columns to explain Why Time Begins on Opening Day. For long-chilled fans, time begins again today, baseball’s earliest start ever.

Several new books of particular interest to Jewish fans will help fill the time between innings and during those interminable pitching changes.

This year marks the 100th birthday of Hank Greenberg, the sport’s first Jewish superstar. Two titles recall his life and achievements, albeit from markedly different perspectives.

Right off the bat, the first pages of Mark Kurnlansky’s Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One (Yale University Press) seem to shatter a notion cherished by Jewish fans for more than 70 years: that the Hall of Famer had an agenda when he decided to skip a crucial game to attend Yom Kippur services. This story — the stuff of legend and even poetry — has often been used by parents to teach their children the meaning of priorities.

“In 1934, Hank Greenberg observed Yom Kippur, possibly for the only time in his adult life,” writes Kurlansky. (The use of “possibly” excuses the author from producing further evidence to back up that assertion.)

Kurlansky — whose work includes Few and Chosen: The Resurrection of European Jewry — presents his book as more scholarly than popular. He splits the story of the Jewish icon with the cultural history of Jews in America following their flight from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. If they thought they were free of anti-Semitism in the Goldene Medina, they were wrong. Greenberg had the dubious honor of playing almost all of his career with the Detroit Tigers, a team based in the heart of anti-Jewish sentiment, with Henry Ford and Father Coughlin leading the charge in the years leading up to World War II. Rare was the day some opposing player or heckler in the stands didn’t torture Greenberg with racist invective. But at a solid six-feet, four-inches, he was a “tough Jew” and not one to back away from a fight — another source of pride for his people.

“Greenberg never sought to be an important Jew,” Kurlansky writes in the prologue. “Rather, he wanted to be an important baseball player.” Perhaps that was true at one point, but in Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer (Calkins Creek), a biography geared for young adult readers, Shelley Sommer offers a different scenario.

“It’s a strange thing,” Greenberg said in an interview he gave toward the end of his life (he died in 1986). “When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period.

“I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.”

In her book, Sommer, a middle-school literature teacher, features positive tales of overcoming adversity — and without the sex, drugs, and other vices so prevalent in contemporary biographies.

Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer, Sommer concludes, but the first to command such national attention, both from a Jewish and an ecumenical fan base.

The ‘real’ first

Before there was Greenberg — way before — there was Lip Pike, the subject of Richard Michelson’s young children’s book, Lipman Pike: American’s First Home Run King (Sleeping Bear Press). In this large-format picture book (with wonderful illustrations by Zachary Pullen), Michelson tells how young Lip grew up in mid-19th-century Brooklyn, attending school and helping around the family haberdashery, all the while dreaming about playing baseball. By sticking to his goals, he got his chance, making his pro debut with the Troy Haymakers in 1871 and leading the fledgling National League in home runs for three straight years. Of course, his totals of four, seven, and four, respectively, don’t even add up to Greenberg’s worst full season, but as Michelson reports, it was vastly different game in Pike’s era.

All of these books share a common element: that most immigrant parents looked upon sports as a waste of time. Children were expected to hit the books, not the baseball. Excelling academically and finding a good profession were the equivalent of making it to the Major Leagues. Ultimately, however, Greenberg’s and Pike’s parents gave in, realizing that this was one way for their sons to “become an American.”

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