Greenberg: hitting home runs against HitlerBy Carl Bialik
"When America needed heroes, a Jewish slugger stepped to the plate." That's the tagline for Aviva Kempner's documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, shown in a special screening at York Square Cinemas on Wed., Apr. 12.
Greenberg (1911-1986) was a hero as a baseball player, leading the Detroit Tigers to four pennants and two World Series titles. He was a Jewish hero, persevering through anti-Semitism to succeed. He was a war hero, serving in World War II for four years in what would have been the prime of his career. And he was a hero after his career, joining the management of the Cleveland Indians organization that hired African-American players before any other team in the American League.
Hank's son Stephen, JE '70, spoke with the Herald after the screening. Stephen was the captain of the Yale baseball team and, after graduating, spent five years in the minor leagues. A lawyer who represents a number of major league players, he became deputy commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1990 until 1993. He left the league to found the Classic Sports Network.
The Yale Herald: In the documentary, your father said he was hitting home runs against Hitler. Was he hitting them as an American or as a Jew?
Stephen Greenberg: Both. Kristallnacht was in 1938, so certainly by the time he went into the service in 1941 he knew that the Nazi movement in Eastern Europe was approaching the Holocaust stage. He was very aware of that. He was very proud of being American, and he was very proud of being a Jew. Those two for him weren't mutually exculsive.
YH: The documentary deals with the anti-Semitism your father faced. Did you face any as captain of the Yale baseball team or in the minor leagues?
SG: A little bit in the minors leagues, but not to a great degree. I played one season in Burlington, North Carolina. North Carolina in the early '70s was pretty backward in some respects, so I certainly saw a little there. Next year I played in Denver and then Spokane, Washington. In larger citites, I didn't experience any.
YH: How was the transition from Yale to the minor leagues?
SG: Strange. The week after my graduation I was married, drafted by the Washington Senators, and went off to Geneva, New York for the Rookie League. That was culture shock. This was 1970, the heart of the Vietnam War and the war protests. The Kent State shootings had been earlier that spring. I was thrust into a world where 90 percent of my team were high school graduates. From a political standpoint, it was certainly a right-of-center-leaning team. But once you're on the field you're not worried about people's political leanings or educational background. It's whether the guy can execute the hit-and-run. When I got to Triple- A, there was a pitcher who saw me reading Vonnegut and said, "Oh I love Kurt Vonnegut." That was probably the first timeand that was my fourth year in the minor leaguesthat anyone had ever looked at a book I was reading and shown recognition. The experience put me in touch with people I wouldn't ordinarily have spent time with. But I certainly made some good friends and learned a lot.
YH: Like your father, you made the switch from the field to the front office. Did his move have an influence on you and your decisions?
SG: My dad was always a player at heart. Even during the years he spent in management, he identified much more with the players than with the other owners. Clearly that influenced me. I represented players as an agent for 13 years, and then went to the other side. I obviously applied myself with full diligence on behalf of the owners, but in my heart of hearts I had much less sympathy with their positions than the players' positions. YH: What did your father think of the front office?
SG: He had bitter experiences with ownership. When he was sold by the Tigers at the end of the '46 season, that really scarred him. He was very bitter about that. I think he saw during his years in management that the owners were selfish, and really didn't care as much about the game as the players did. His years in management made him more sympathetic to the players. He ultimately said he didn't get back into baseball after 1961 because he could stand the thought of going to another owners' meeting.
YH: Your father was the manager of the Cleveland Indians, a team that started signing black players when others still wouldn't. What was his role in integration?
SG: In 1947, it had nothing to do with my dad. Bill Veeck was the principal owner of the Indians when Larry Doby became the first African-American in the American League, a little later in the '47 season than Jackie Robinson. One of the reasons my dad went to Cleveland was because of Veeckhe had an instant rapport with him. For my dad it was as basic as, first of all, having no prejudice whatsoever. Second of all, a pragmatic business person, he wanted to win pennants. The way to win pennants is to put the best team on the field. He thought anyone who passed over players because they were black or Hispanic was just stupid from a business standpointit was that simple.
YH: Was the man in your film similar to the father you knew growing up?
SG: Hank Greenberg in his baseball-playing days was totally obsessed and single- minded. All he thought about was baseball. He didn't get married and have a family because baseball was really all that he cared about. It was going to war and seeing the worldand not just big cities in the American Leaguebut seeing the world and seeing what was happening that changed him. When he came back in '45, baseball wasn't at the same level in terms of things he cared about. It wasn't just that his talents had eroded a little, but he had it in perspective better. It enabled him to have a relationship with a woman. He began dating my mother immediately upon coming back, and married her a year and a half or so later. The father I knew was a regular dad: he played with us; he read to us. He went to work, his job happened to be at a ballpark. But he was a much more well-rounded person. He began readinghe hadn't gone to college but he was a voracious reader of history biographies, and novels. He developed a keen interest in the stock market. The father I grew up with was a more diverse person than this very single-minded kid who drove himself to become a great ballplayer.
YH: This screening launched the Forum for the Study of Jews and Sports at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. What do you think of the idea of such a forum?
SG: It's great. The programs at Yale Hillel add a tremendous amount to the community. I think that for any ethnic group to explore aspects of their culture is a positive thing. The joke is that the Jews in sports are the ones who own the sporting goods stores. Breaking that stereotype was part of what my dad was about. Those stereotypes are being smashed across the board. You have a Jew wrestling in WCWtimes have changed. Last year there were three Jewish players in the Major League All-Star Game: Brad Ausmus, Shawn Green, and Mike Lieberthal. It's no longer a freak of nature to see a Jew playing big time college sports or professional sports. It's great for how one feels about oneself to explore the anti-stereotype, which is what their program is about.
All materials © 2000 The Yale Herald, Inc., and its staff.
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