At long last, my biography of Hank Greenberg is on its way to the printer. I don’t have a publication date yet, but, after many years, it’s soon to be a book you can hold rather than a Word document on my screen.
I began Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Baseball Pioneer by sitting on the floor at the local Barnes and Noble. Next to me was a stack of baseball books, and I opened them from the back. I would scan the index of each book looking for references to Greenberg, the first Jewish player elected to the Hall of Fame and the longtime first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Of course, I already had piles of resources, books about: Detroit, the Great Depression, The Detroit Tigers, Jewish athletes and, my best source, Greenberg’s autobiography written with Ira Berkow. What I was looking for in Barnes and Noble were anecdotes about Greenberg or his teammates that were not included elsewhere. I especially enjoyed reading first hand accounts of life on the road by former players.
This very low tech search method yielded great riches. Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms written by Elden Auker, a pitcher in the American League between 1933 and 1942, was one of my best finds. Auker’s book includes a whole chapter on Greenberg and his stories added to my understanding of my subject’s life both on and off the field. I know there were more efficient ways to find Greenberg anecdotes, but it was sitting and looking through books that enhanced my overall sense of Greenberg’s world. Sometimes, I would look up and realize I had been sitting for close to an hour with a book about Lou Gehrig that rarely mentioned my subject. However, this was far from wasted time. Like reading the newspaper rather than searching for a specific article on-line, reading all kinds of baseball books gave me a broader view of the sport’s history and helped me to see Greenberg on a continuum rather than in isolation.
As I sent chapter drafts to Carolyn Yoder, my editor, she would gently remind me to make sure that each anecdote I included supported the book’s thesis: Hank Greenberg faced challenges as the first prominent Jewish-American baseball player. Although he began his career as an “outsider,” he went on to achieve greatness and open the door to other Jewish players. I would sometimes digress and go to great lengths explaining a topic that really had nothing to do with Greenberg’s career as the first Jewish baseball star. Carolyn always brought me back.
One of the issues I struggled with was familiar. While writing my first biography of John F. Kennedy, I often puzzled over how much background information to provide the reader. My approach was often inconsistent; I would over explain the impact of television on the 1960 campaign and then under explain the affects of communism on the nation’s psyche in the early 1960s. The same thing happened with Greenberg. In the early drafts, I can see places where Carolyn wrote: “too much” and other places where she says “more explanation needed.” It is a balancing act that makes me appreciate good editing.
What kept me going was Greenberg himself. I began to picture him on the field, and after speaking with one of his sons, I had a voice to put with the photos that surround my desk. Sometimes I would stop and look closely into his eyes and feel pulled forward – wanting to do justice to his story. I knew it was illogical to “look for” anything in those black and white pictures of a tall man wearing a Detroit Tigers uniform, but they made him real and inspired me to give him his due. I’m looking forward to telling kids about Hank Greenberg. At a time when kids are hearing a lot about steroid use by baseball stars, it will be fun to tell them about a player who practiced and played hard throughout his entire career.