The Think Piece Interview: John Rosengren

John Rosengren has long been regarded as one of the top magazine writers and book authors in the Twin Cities, especially for his coverage of sports. He’s written seven books, most of them with a regional focus, with his best-known being Blades of Glory, a Friday Night Lights-type book about a year in the life of the Bloomington Jefferson High School hockey team. Today is the launch of his exhaustively researched and sharply written Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes and it’s his national coming out party. It’s hard to state how much the legendary slugger for the Detroit Tigers meant to Jewish-Americans at the time. His decision to sit out a World Series game during Yom Kippur cemented his status as a Jewish legend; his decision to miss four seasons in his prime to serve his country in the military during World War II cemented his status as an American legend.

Rosengren takes us through Greenberg’s life in a way no biographer has, unearthing new details about his life, both on the field and off. This is a book that will surely become known as the definitive Greenberg biography.

We sat down with him in Minneapolis to talk about writing, life, and Hank.

TP: Hank Greenberg was a pretty famous baseball figure in the history books already. Why did you think a new biography should be written about him?

JR: There really wasn’t all that much on him. There’s Hank’s autobiography that Ira Berkow lovingly crafted into a book called The Story of My Life after Greenberg died, which had 600 pages of manuscript transcribed from tape recordings that Greenberg had made the last summer of his life. The result of Berkow’s book is a chopped-up narrative and it’s riddled with mistakes. I thought there just wasn’t a real good biography of Greenberg out there.

TP: What kind of research did you do?

JR: I went to Cooperstown, the New York Public Library, Detroit and its public library, the Tigers archives. I did a little bit of research at the Louisville Slugger museum in Kentucky. I got records from the FBI, his military records, which are huge, and then Ellis Island, and the National Labor Relations Board stuff.

TP: Your book is 392 pages. It strikes me as five years’ work. How long did it take you to report and write?

JR: I signed the contract in January of 2010 and finished in September of 2012. Of course, I had done a lot of research and writing before then to get my proposal ready.

TP: How do you get started organizing a project like this, something with such depth?

JR: It’s kind of like writing a magazine article. I look at my notes, come up with an outline, find the story I want to tell, figure out how I want to tell the story—there needs to be a story per chapter—and the chapters have to build in succession. I had a general idea what the story was but the details started falling into place as I found them. And then there’d be these little anecdotes along the way that illuminated the overall story.

TP: What new information is in your book for Greenberg historians?

JR: I think I set the record straight on his decision on … whether to play on the high holy days in 1934; there was some misinformation there. And one guy asked me, “How did he get custody of his kids, after he got divorced in the 1950s?” It was very unusual for a man to get full custody of three children. I got the court records on the divorce and also talked to his family and discovered that his wife had been having an affair, so the judge awarded Greenberg custody of the children.

But probably the biggest thing that I found that I hadn’t seen written about much was the controversy over his induction into the draft in 1941, where he basically asked for a deferment, even though it wasn’t technically that, and there was furor over that. It raised public debate over an individual’s capitalist interests to pursue the American dream versus the civic duty to serve one’s country. And then he gets classified as having flat feet, which escalates it to another level, and then it gets determined that the flat feet aren’t a problem at all. And the fact that he’s Jewish gives all these angles for people to make anti-Semitic remarks.

TP: How many seasons did he lose to the war?

JR: Four.

TP: Put Greenberg in context for our readers on his stature in baseball.

JR: Take 1941. When you think of 1941, you think of Ted Williams hitting .406 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. But in the spring, Greenberg was the most prominent baseball player. He was the reigning AL MVP, he was the highest-paid player, he was young, good-looking, he’d already had a lot of success. He was the guy.

TP: And how do his career numbers stack up against the other greats?

JR: Guys like Williams played longer and put up bigger numbers, but per season Greenberg was extraordinary. His RBI numbers are remarkable—he had 183 in 1937. No one’s had more than 150 RBI in over 50 years.

TP: You write some vivid sections about the appalling anti-Semitism Greenberg faced. How did it impact you to discover this vile stuff in the research?

JR: It was disturbing. The level of personal nastiness of [New York Yankee] Ben Chapman yelling stuff at him, or [St. Louis Cardinals manager] Leo Durocher, that was troubling. I understand that they would do whatever they could to get an edge on the opposition, but it certainly crossed a line with my sensibilities of what’s acceptable and what’s not, and there had to be some edge of hate underneath it that supported the things they said.

TP: He withstood a lot, and paved the way for future Jewish-Americans to be accepted as sports stars.

JR: He did. Today he’d be a great ballplayer, but his Jewishness would be irrelevant in the way that it is for [current Milwaukee Brewer] Ryan Braun. But in Greenberg’s age, ethnic identification was much stronger. He was a second-generation immigrant, his parents had come from Romania, so the connections with his community were much tighter. He was this guy who shattered stereotypes and gave people hope. That’s why he became the standard-bearer. Jews needed a standard-bearer.

TP: And he became famous for never playing on Yom Kippur.

JR: He did, although he was willing to in the 1935 Series.

TP: What are some of the misconceptions people have about Greenberg and his famous decisions about playing, or not playing, on the high holy days?

JR: One is that he went and consulted rabbis for a ruling. He didn’t. That’s one of the myths. He consulted his friends, who were Jews and elders, but he read the opinions in the media of the rabbis after he’d already played the Rosh Hashanah games. In 1935 he was willing to play in the World Series, but later, in 1937, when he was chasing Lou Gehrig’s RBI record, which is what he really wanted, on Yom Kippur, he decided to sit out to observe this tradition. Hardly anyone talks about that or writes about that, but that was the date that showed how much his faith meant to him. In many of the accounts in the other books, he wasn’t all that observant. I disagree with that. Not only did he seek out matzo on Passover and go to shul on his own when he was in the minor leagues, his decision to sit out in 1937 shows he was, and there wasn’t that much attention given it. Had he played, no one would have really minded, but he sat out at his own expense.

TP: What was it that got you started thinking about Greenberg?

JR: I had read The Echoing Green by Josh Prager about Bobby Thomson’s home run. I read that and thought, What other dramatic home runs have ended the season like this? I wanted to write a magazine article. I came across Greenberg’s grand slam in 1945 that gave the Tigers the pennant, and I thought, This is a great article, and I wrote it for Memories and Dreams, the Hall of Fame publication. As I was researching the article, I realized there’s a story here that’s worthy of a book.

TP: Were you sad to let Hank go?

JR: No, when you finish there’s a sense of relief, hitting send, hitting the deadline. But then there are those moments of, I’ve got to change this, I’ve got to change that, this is wrong, I’ve got to fix that. Now it’s like I have to go back and re-read the book to do these interviews. I don’t know the exact details anymore. I’ve got to brush up on it.

TP: Do you think you’d like the man if he was sitting here with us?

JR: Oh yeah. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and he could be thin-skinned, especially about the press, but everything I know about the guy seems to indicate he’d be just a great guy to know, very kind and generous.

TP: Where do you rate this book among your seven?

JR: I think it’s my best so far. I hope I’ve matured as a writer, but I’m also expecting that in five years when I read this I’ll cringe in spots, and that’ll just be a sign of progress.

— This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.











Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing