By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
Baseball fans might most vividly remember Hank Greenberg for his chase of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938 and his other impressive exploits on the field. The smaller universe of Jewish baseball fans may remember him for sitting out a crucial game on Yom Kippur decades before Sandy Koufax would do the same. But author John Klima wants readers of any background to know the unsung story of Greenberg’s World War II service.
As indicated by its title, Klima’s recently published book—“The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII”—is about much more than Greenberg. Yet the Hall-of-Fame first baseman and outfielder, who won two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards and two World Series championships with the Detroit Tigers, is the centerpiece.
“I had wanted to write a baseball and World War II book, and I didn’t like how any of them had been done before,” Klima says in an interview. “I thought they were all textbooks, or I thought they were rehashes of newspaper articles, and I didn’t think there was anything narrative. So if I was going to do something long-form and narrative, then I needed a character people could connect with, and that character was Hank Greenberg.”
After an initial army stint of half a year, Greenberg was honorably discharged on Dec. 5, 1941, two days before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. In a statement of epic proportions, Greenberg voluntarily re-enlisted in the Army Air Corps immediately after the attack and did not return to Major League Baseball (MLB) until the summer of 1945. Baseball’s highest-paid player before the war, Greenberg was the first Major Leaguer to enlist, becoming the face of an era that—with conscription depleting baseball of much of its top-tier talent—forever changed the MLB and the entire American professional sports landscape, Kima’s book argues.
“What you found out about Hank Greenberg was that he really represented everything to everyone, and he represented everything to the Jewish people before the war, during the war, and after the war,” Klima tells JNS.org. “And then the rest of the country, even though they knew about him as an American League MVP and a big slugger, kind of embraced him, I think, the same way that the Jewish population had in the 1930s, in the sense that Hank suddenly represented the ballplayer who left the privileges of his life to go sacrifice and serve. That was Hank’s decision. Not only does he end up representing the guy who served, but then he ends up representing the soldier who’s coming back and putting his life together.”
Upon Greenberg’s return to baseball in 1945, he hit a grand-slam home run that clinched the American League pennant on the last day of the season. The Tigers later defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. But before his triumphant comeback, the absence of Greenberg and other stars like him opened the door for players such as one-armed outfielder Pete Gray—who shares the cover of Klima’s book with Greenberg—to realize their dream of reaching the Major Leagues.
In an anecdote from “The Game Must Go On” that brings the book’s major protagonists together, Greenberg and Gray “stood arm in arm in the steady St. Louis rain, talking softly for a few moments” during the same game Greenberg won with his historic home run.
“This was the image of baseball in World War II,” Klima writes. “The serviceman was thanking the temporary worker for keeping the factory humming while he was on. The hero got his life back. The replacement was swept out the door. Hank seemed to realize what few others could, that both of them had helped win the war in their own different ways.”
Indeed, while players such as Greenberg made their contributions on the battlefield, the likes of Gray kept the game alive on the baseball field and boosted both Americans’ morale at home and soldiers’ morale overseas.
Greenberg’s gesture in the season-ending game against the St. Louis Browns—which was also Gray’s final MLB game—“was as grand as any home run he ever hit,” writes Klima.
“That was a very symbolic moment,” Klima tells JNS.org. “I don’t like doing my baseball histories the way other people do. I like moments that tie things together.”
Gray and Greenberg both endured hate, the former for his physical disability and the latter over his Jewish faith. On the field with Gray that day, Greenberg’s character shone through.
“Hank had a very deep integrity about him that transcended everything he did on the field,” Klima says. “When Hank found these moments of integrity, he just sailed above everything. … Hank is going to do what Hank knows is right. That’s really the essence of Greenberg, and I think that’s why people are still drawn to him. That’s why I’m drawn to him. He’s got tunnel-vision for the right thing.”
Klima writes that Greenberg, after hitting the pennant-winning home run, “swore he heard one of the infielders mutter, ‘Goddamn that dirty Jew bastard, he beat us again.’ He savored the thought of the Washington Senators (who lost the pennant because of the Tigers’ win that day) sitting around a hotel room listening to his grand slam on the radio, calling him every dirty Jew name in the book, and he loved the thought of how angry his home run must have made them.”
“Hank was hearing ‘dirty Jew bastard’ all the way through the end of his career. He didn’t talk about it after the 1930s, but he still heard it. The big leagues were a rough, nasty place,” Klima says, adding that the Washington Senators were a particularly “anti-Semitic bunch.”
Kilma believes Greenberg “took a lot of joy in triumphing over bigots,” but “would never say it to you” and “would always let his actions speak louder than his words.”
Greenberg was also understated about his military service, which was highlighted by his time in the China Burma India Theater (CBI) region with the first group of Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft during the bombing campaign against Japan. But one incident Greenberg did elucidate with a firsthand account was a dramatic story from June 1944, when he was part of a ground crew trying to rescue a plane that developed engine trouble and could not get airborne. The bombs on the plane exploded during the rescue effort, nearly killing Greenberg.
“I was stunned and couldn’t talk or hear for a couple days, but was otherwise undamaged,” Greenberg says, according to the book. “The miraculous part of it all was that the entire crew escaped. Some of them were pretty well banged up, but no one was killed. That was an occasion, I can assure you, when I didn’t wonder whether or not I’d be able to return to baseball. I was quite satisfied to be alive.”
While Greenberg would not “make a big deal” out of his military service publicly, Klima says, it “was something he cared about immensely.”
“He took great pride in it,” says the author. “He didn’t need any adulation for it, and I actually didn’t write the book to hero-worship him. I wrote the book because it was a good story, and he’s the rock that you could build it around. So that’s sort of my compromise with Hank.”
Reiterating how Greenberg’s actions spoke louder than words, Klima says, “If you walked up to Hank and said, ‘Tell me about how you’re standing up for the Jewish people,’ Hank would probably demur. But if you watched him in his everyday life, you would see him do that everyday.”
Klima says he cares about “the people who still look up to Hank,” and that he hopes the book both preserves and accurately depicts the legacy of the Jewish ballplayer, who died in 1986.
“Hank’s integrity allows that book to stand up, and he allows the story of the war to stand up,” says Klima.
“I would want every Jewish person in the world to read it,” he adds. “I would want them to know. I would want kids to know. I would want Catholic kids to know. I would want everybody to know about Hank. I just think that they don’t make ballplayers like Hank Greenberg anymore, and I don’t think they make ballplayers who are people like Hank Greenberg anymore.”
“The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII,” by John Klima, Thomas Dunne Books, May 2015, 432 pages, $27.99, ISBN-10: 1250064791, ISBN-13: 978-1250064790.
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