Hank Greenberg

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The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One

Mark Kurlansky

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From the prizewinning Jewish Lives series, the remarkable life story of the first Jewish superstar athlete, by New York Times best-selling author Mark Kurlansky

One of the reasons baseball fans so love the sport is that it involves certain physical acts of beauty. And one of the most beautiful sights in the history of baseball was Hank Greenberg's swing. His calmly poised body seemed to have some special set of springs with a trigger release that snapped his arms and swept the bat through the air with the clean speed and strength of a propeller. But what is even more extraordinary than his grace and his power is that in Detroit of 1934, his swing—or its absence—became entwined with American Jewish history. Though Hank Greenberg was one of the first players to challenge Babe Ruth's single-season record of sixty home runs, it was the game Greenberg did not play for which he is best remembered. With his decision to sit out a 1934 game between his Tigers and the New York Yankees because it fell on Yom Kippur, Hank Greenberg became a hero to Jews throughout America. Yet, as Kurlansky writes, he was the quintessential secular Jew, and to celebrate him for his loyalty to religious observance is to ignore who this man was.

In Hank Greenberg Mark Kurlansky explores the truth behind the slugger's legend: his Bronx boyhood, his spectacular discipline as an aspiring ballplayer, the complexity of his decision not to play on Yom Kippur, and the cultural context of virulent anti-Semitism in which his career played out.

What Kurlansky discovers is a man of immense dignity and restraint with a passion for sport who became a great reader—a man, too, who was an inspiration to the young Jackie Robinson, who said, "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."

About Jewish Lives: 

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.

In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.

More praise for Jewish Lives:

"Excellent" –New York Times

"Exemplary" –Wall Street Journal

"Distinguished" –New Yorker

"Superb" –The Guardian

Mark Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.

"Mark Kurlansky, a historian and a fan, zeroes in on Greenberg like Hammerin' Hank teeing off on a fastball."—Allen Barra, San Francisco Chronicle

“Always winning. . . . Kurlansky adroitly weaves the reluctance with which Greenberg wore this symbolic tallit throughout his life.”—New York Times Book Review

"A graceful appreciation."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"Kurlansky. . . shows how the American Jewish experience can be a secular one, that playing baseball served as part of the Americanization process for immigrant families. . . . For fans of baseball's golden greats, of interpretive biographies, and of [the Jewish Lives] series."--Library Journal

"It's the best of the lot because it kept surprising me."—Steven V. Roberts, The Washington Post

"Context is vital to the craft of biography. Kurlansky provides excellent context over and over. What he offers about Greenberg playing or not playing on Yom Kippur constitutes valuable context about Judaism"—Steve Weinberg, Jewish Journal

"Kurlansky effectively adds admirable layers to a 'quintessential secular Jew' often misunderstood and certainly deserving of more appreciation, on and off the field."—Post and Courier

"Mark Kurlansky, a historian and a fan, zeroes in on Greenberg like Hammerin' Hank teeing off on a fastball."—Allen Barra, Newark Star-Ledger

"Kurlansky's...volume puts a fascinating period of sports history into a vivid cultural context."—Publishers Weekly

"Kurlansky...shows how the American Jewish experience can be a secular one, that playing baseball served as part of the Americanization process for immigrant families....For fans of baseball's golden greats, of interpretive biographies, and of [the Jewish Lives] series."—Library Journal

"If this fine biography is any sample of [the series] previously published and those still to come, these publications will make a stellar contribution to our understanding of notable Jews. . . . Mark Kurlansky offers an excellent, well-written analysis of the life and times of Hank Greenberg. . . . This account of Greenberg's life is thorough, insightful, and well-written."—Morton I. Teicher, National Jewish Post & Opinion

"Well-written, clear and concise."—Zachary Munson, The Weekly Standard

"This account of Greenberg's life is thorough, insightful and well-written. It achieves distinction by describing his character and career, setting them against the background of a turbulent era in Jewish history."—Morton Teicher, Jewish Journal

"The prolific Kurlansky has outdone himself."—Jan Gardner, Boston Sunday Globe

“Kurlansky’s book is an excellent addition to the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. It is, I suspect, no accident that most of the titles, both those already published and the projected volumes deal with secular Jewish lives. A few of those lives, like the one Kurlansky has given us in this well-written and unpretentious biography, may also speak of the need to hit.” — Leonard Kriegel, Forward


Named one of Michigan's 20 Most Notable Books in 2012 by the Library of Michigan.
ISBN: 9780300136609
Publication Date: March 29, 2011
192 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
1 b/w illus.
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