From Shelley Sommer — about her new middle grade biography of Hank Greenberg
I would never have expected my second biography for young readers to be about a baseball player. My first book, a biography of John F. Kennedy, was a natural result of my 15-year career at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, but outside of my hometown support of the Boston Red Sox, I never considered myself a serious fan. It was reading baseball books with my son that sparked an interest in Hank Greenberg, the star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and the first Jewish player elected to the Hall of Fame. As my son got older, our collection of baseball books grew, and along with the familiar stories of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, I learned a new one. Reading books about the challenges faced by players who broke racial and ethnic barriers, I started wondering why Greenberg’s story was not better known. During his career with the Detroit Tigers, Greenberg was selected to five All-Star teams, was the American League’s Most Valuable Player two times, and came within two home runs of Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1938 – and he did all of it while being jeered from the sidelines and always referred to as the “Jewish baseball player.”
After watching Aviva Kempner’s 2000 documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, I decided to pursue his life story more seriously and suggested to my agent that Greenberg would be a natural subject for a children’s biography. For the past two years, I have been working with Carolyn Yoder from Boyds Mills Press/Calkins Creek, and Greenberg’s story will be published next year.
At the center of this story is a man born to Romanian immigrants who learned “America’s national sport” on the streets of Brooklyn. Greenberg’s parents were concerned about the amount of time their son devoted to playing baseball. In fact, Greenberg later told sportswriter Ira Berkow that his neighbors used to say “Mrs. Greenberg has such nice children. Too bad one of them has to be a bum. I was the bum.”
Greenberg was a good baseball player and a good guy. As I read about his baseball career, I came across so many wonderful anecdotes about his off-the-field kindnesses. I began my research by reading the book Greenberg wrote with Berkow and then collected more books than I would have guessed existed about the Detroit Tigers. As I looked at pictures of Greenberg and his teammates Charlie Gehringer and Mickey Cochrane, I began to understand how important the Detroit Tigers were to their fans. Detroit was hit hard by the Great Depression, and going to a Tigers game was a temporary escape from the pressures of losing your job in the still relatively new auto industry.
I was also lucky enough to make a friend in the research department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Gabriel Schecter (a smart guy who appeared on Jeopardy last year) showed me Greenberg’s file at the Hall of Fame which contained hundreds of newspaper clippings. This allowed me to follow Greenberg’s career from his early days with the Tigers through his 1938 race for the home run record and his eventual retirement after playing a final year for the Pittsburg Pirates.
The Tigers haven’t won a World Series for twenty-five years, but who knows, this could be the year. And even though I’ll continue to root for the Red Sox, I’ll keep an eye on Detroit as well.