It’s a biography of the “Hebrew Hammer,” one of the greatest players in baseball history. A member of the Detroit Tigers Mt. Rushmore. Greenberg was more than just one of the premier power hitters of his generation. He slugged 58 home runs in 1938, equaling Jimmie Foxx’s 1932 mark for the most home runs in one season by any player between 1927 (when Babe Ruth set a record of 60) and 1961 (when Roger Maris surpassed it). Greenberg was a five-time All-Star, twice AL MVP and elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956.
Hank Greenberg was also the first Jewish superstar in all of American professional sports. And reaching that height meant he had to endure Anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice that you could not imagine. Rosengren’s book is more than a baseball story; it’s about social pioneering and political trail blazing. John Rosengren is an award-winning author of seven books. A freelance writer since 1981, he has written articles for more than 100 publications ranging from Reader’s Digest to Sports Illustrated. He’s a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors and the Society for American Baseball Research. He teaches in the University of Minnesota’s journalism school and at the Loft Literary Center. He earned his master’s degree in creative writing at Boston University, where he studied with Saul Bellow and Derek Walcott. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and their two children.
You can see a sampling of all the press Rosengren received on his book at HankGreenberg.net on the book page under reviews. The Detroit Free Press and Chicago Magazine did interviews. Rosengren has also written for the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Side. He will be speaking at the Highland Park Public Library on July 10.
Paul M. Banks: Tell us more about your professional background. How did you get involved in writing and public speaking? Who are your idols of the written word and spoken word?
John Rosengren: I started writing articles for the community newspaper when I was a senior in high school at the recommendation of my journalism teacher. He supported the idea of me taking on social issues of the day. I discovered the power of the written word to raise awareness and bring about change. I’ve continued that over the past 30 years, seeking out stories of substance and social significance to tell readers. Among authors, there are many I admire: Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Truman Capote for In Cold Blood, Alan Paton Cry the Beloved Country, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, David Halberstam, Robert Caro, to name a few. As for other journalists, the list is also long and includes the likes of Michael Lewis, Chris Jones, Gary Smith, Rick Reilly and Steve Rushin. There are many others who aren’t leaping to mind at the moment and I’m embarrassed to be forgetting, but those names come quickly.
Paul M. Banks: Why did you choose to focus on the story of Hank Greenberg? What’s the main message you hope the reader takes away?
John Rosengren: I found in Greenberg not only the story of a great ballplayer but the story of a man who transcended baseball to become a national hero and cultural icon. He was a beacon of hope to Jews during a dark time, the anti-Semitism of the ’30s and ’40s when he played. He also modeled assimilation to a generation, showing the way to become a part of mainstream society while staying true to his ethnic identity. I’d like readers to take away a sense of his courage an integrity as he came to embrace the role of standard bearer.
Paul M. Banks: How would you compare contrast the story of Hank Greenberg with Jackie Robinson and Jason Collins?
John Rosengren: Jason Collins’ story is still unfolding. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll play as an openly gay man. The closer corollary is Robinson. While Hank was not barred from restaurants and hotels the way Robinson was, Greenberg was similarly despised and taunted. Both men endured a barrage of physical and emotional abuse at a time that sanctioned that sort of psychological warfare. The anti-Semitism Greenberg faced was as widespread and socially acceptable as Jim Crow laws. Both Robinson and Greenberg enlightened a generation the way they broke stereotypes with their presence and performance. As a result, Robinson opened the doors to African Americans in baseball; Greenberg showed that Jews could be great athletes.
Paul M. Banks: Who are some of the public figures who benefited most from Hank Greenberg’s example?
John Rosengren: Sandy Koufax, who famously sat out the first game of the 1965 World Series in observance of Yom Kippur, has Greenberg to thank for the precedent when he did not play on Yom Kippur in five seasons. Senator Carl Levin grew up admiring Greenberg and believing that his dreams were possible to achieve. Actor Walter Matthau grew up during the Thirties reading about Hank in the newspapers and idolizing him. “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?’”
Paul M. Banks: What’s the extent of your involvement/interest in Major League Baseball today?
John Rosengren: I’m a fan of the game. The Twins have been my team since my dad started taking me to games at Met Stadium where I watched Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva in the Seventies. I was also a fan of the Oakland A’s dynasty of the early Seventies and the Big Red Machine. Over the years, I’ve come to love the history of the game and grown attached to teams I’ve written about, such as the Mets, the Tigers, the Dodgers and the Giants. But the Golden Age of baseball remains for me that period from the time I learned to read a box score to the time I discovered girls; when baseball seemed to hold all the magic and drama of the world that a boy needed.
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Paul M. Banks is the owner of The Sports Bank.net. (“Quasi-endorsed” by Philadelphia Eagles Coach Chip Kelly) He’s also an author who also contributes regularly to MSN, Fox Sports , Chicago Now, Walter Football.com and Yardbarker
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