Hank on First!: How Hank Green­berg Became a Star On and Off the Field

  • Review
By – August 8, 2023

Base­ball leg­end Hen­ry Hank” Green­berg (1911 – 1986) has long been an inspi­ra­tion to Amer­i­can Jews. In addi­tion to his phe­nom­e­nal ath­let­ic skills, he is best known for hav­ing refused to play on Yom Kip­pur dur­ing the 1934 sea­son. Stephen Kren­sky and Alette Straathof’s new pic­ture book biog­ra­phy recalls the anti­se­mit­ic abuse to which Green­berg was sub­ject­ed, along with his courage and resilience. As the book’s sub­ti­tle sug­gests, there are many ways in which a gift­ed ath­lete can be a star.

When the book begins, twen­ty-three-year-old Hank is play­ing first base for the Detroit Tigers. He has always want­ed to be an ath­lete, yet his par­ents, in typ­i­cal Jew­ish-immi­grant fash­ion, always assumed he would be a doc­tor or a lawyer. (“The choice is yours,” his moth­er assures him.) Read­ers first see Hank swift­ly catch­ing the ball; but by the next page, his suc­cess is already upset by prej­u­dice. A jeer­ing crowd shouts anti­se­mit­ic slurs at him as he turns away, proud­ly car­ry­ing his bat. Straathof’s pic­tures do not shy away from depict­ing such hatred. The rage on the people’s faces may remind adults of pho­tographs from the lat­er Civ­il Rights era, when white suprema­cists angri­ly protest­ed desegregation.

There are a lim­it­ed num­ber of options avail­able to Hank when it comes to choos­ing how to respond to this hatred. One two-page spread shows him against a red back­ground that is explod­ing with crude taunts, each one print­ed in upper­case in an exag­ger­at­ed­ly large font. Although Hank admits to him­self that the big­ots are get­ting under his skin,” he nev­er­the­less believes that stay­ing calm and prov­ing his skills will be the best plan of action. Upon the arrival of the High Hol­i­days in the fall, Hank must decide whether or not to play, since Kren­sky care­ful­ly states that most Jews don’t work on those days. Even though Green­berg was not strict­ly obser­vant, he was like­ly aware that his per­son­al deci­sions about reli­gious prac­tice would reflect on Jew­ish peo­ple as a whole.

Hank asks a rab­bi for advice and is told that there is a dif­fer­ence between play­ing on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kip­pur. By the time Yom Kip­pur arrives, he is still torn, debat­ing whether to attend syn­a­gogue or avoid con­tact with the pub­lic by stay­ing home. When he shows up at ser­vices, the entire com­mu­ni­ty — includ­ing his rab­bi — applauds, and Hank knows he is in the right place.

In Greenberg’s life and career, he proved that being a star is about more than being named most valu­able play­er or play­ing on a team that won the World Series twice. This New York City boy earned the respect of his fel­low Jews, and of many Amer­i­cans, when he laid down his bat and put on his tallis.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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