by Andrew Garda
While Roger Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record is well known to most baseball fans, very few know that Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg made a run at the record in 1938.
Author Ron Kaplan’s recent book, “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War,” is a fascinating look at that pursuit, and how both the looming war in Europe and Greenberg’s Jewish religion impacted it.
A longtime Montclair resident, Kaplan is a freelance writer and the former sports editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. He has presented his book at Watchung Booksellers and Bnai Keshet, where he is a member. He spoke with Montclair Local last month.
When Kaplan began tackling his book, one of the things that struck him the most was the different style newswriters employed at the time.
“They were not what you would call politically correct,” he said. “[Writing] ‘the Hebrew Hammer,’ for example — we don’t talk about Jewish ballplayers as Jewish ballplayers like that anymore.”
Kaplan says that some of that is due to what is acceptable and what isn’t in the world now, but also that there aren’t a lot of Jewish baseball players. On top of that, it really isn’t a big deal anymore.
That was not the case when Greenberg entered the league in 1930 for the Tigers. For many people, Greenberg wasn’t a Jew on the team — he was the only Jew they’d ever seen or read about.
To illustrate that, Kaplan told a story about a teammate of Greenberg’s who was from the deep South. The player was staring at him to the point where Greenberg became annoyed.
“Greenberg said, ‘What are you looking at?’” Kaplan explains. “The guy looks at him and says, ‘I’ve never seen a Jew before.’”
As Greenberg chased Ruth’s home run record, and the spotlight grew brighter, he embraced being an example of what a Jewish person could be.
As basically the first Jewish sports superstar, Greenberg was the antithesis of what many people thought a Jew would look like.
“[Jews] were caricatured as weak, as bent over, as wearing glasses and being studious,” Kaplan said. “And here’s Greenberg who is 6 feet, 4 inches, over 200 pounds and hitting balls out of sight regularly. He knew, like it or not, that he was the representative of the Jewish community.”
As we learn in Kaplan’s book, Greenberg’s pursuit of Ruth’s home run record took those perceptions and turned them upside down.