For baseball buffs, Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg is best known for hitting 183 RBIs in 1937 and 58 home runs in 1938, almost breaking Babe Ruth’s sacred record of 60 homers., For fans that know their Golden Age of Baseball history Greenberg — like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio –is revered for sacrificing years of his glorious career to fight during World War II.
In American Jewish households, however, there is a mythical religious aura surrounding Greenberg that goes beyond baseball. Growing up in Detroit, my brother and I associated the observation of Yom Kippur with the 6-foot-4 first baseman. Every year like clockwork our immigrant father, who grew to love baseball as his badge of becoming American, would retell the story of how Greenberg honored his religion by going to services instead of the stadium on our holy fast day, even though his power hitting was vital for the Tigers in the 1934 pennant race.
In his decision to honor his parents that year Greenberg taught America about a minority religious practice that was unknown to most. He gained respect in the community, and Edgar Guest wrote a poem in the Detroit Free Press that ended: “We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he’s true to his religion — and I honor him for that!'”
My father also lectured how Greenberg’s choice was especially courageous, since he often faced anti-Semitic slurs from the opposing team and stands. Pops would proudly carry on about Greenberg playing in Detroit, a hotbed of domestic anti-Semitism exemplified in Henry Ford’s publications and Father Charles Coughlin’s racist rants.
Less well known is how Greenberg, voted MVP, dealt with a repeat of the Yom Kippur dilemma in 1935. The Tigers faced the Chicago Cubs in the World Series that fell on Yom Kippur. Like the year before, writers speculated whether the Bronx Bomber would play or not.
In an interview for my film on Greenberg, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” his sibling Joe clarified: “My brother had made up his mind that he felt that he owed it to the team to play. He decided that if it ever came down to that, he was going to play.”
In the second game of the Series, Joe claims divine intervention helped. “God took care of it,” he told me, “because Hank slid into a base and broke his wrist. He was eliminated from making that decision, and of course pleased my parents very, very much.”
After 1965 our father updated his sermon to include Sandy Koufax’s bold decision not to play on Yom Kippur during the World Series. But he was quick to point out that switching a pitcher’s day on the mound was less harmful to a team than sacrificing your prime slugger for a whole game.
My father’s reciting baseball lore about Hammerin’ Hank was not an isolated case. Greenberg’s Yom Kippur stand has been repeated generation after generation for the last 79 years in rabbinical sermons, bar and bat mitzvah speeches and at dinner tables. Every fall, current Jewish baseball players face scrutiny by the media as to whether they will play or not on their religion’s holiest day.
Greenberg’s stand even influenced a decision in the highest court of the land. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained to me in a filmed interview that Greenberg’s decision helped lead to the Court’s practice of not holding oral arguments on Yom Kippur. She explained how she referred to Greenberg’s “conscience,” when they discussed the potential conflicts for Jewish lawyers by scheduling arguments on Yom Kippur. She added: “Comparing his situation to the situation of the lawyers who would argue before us, I think, was effective.”
Only after I completed “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and heard the audience reactions did I realize my brother and I were not alone in hearing the 1934 Yom Kippur story. Dozens upon dozens of filmgoers, usually men with tears in their eyes, would admit that hearing the tale of young Hank Greenberg’s stand in 1934 is what they most remember from their youth.
I decided that on my grave the epitaph should be: “She made men cry.” Of course, Hank Greenberg deserves all the credit.
Filmmaker and writer Aviva Kempner has produced a new DVD of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” with over two hours of extras, including a phone interview with Ted Williams. She is finishing a film on Julius Rosenwald.