In 1938, Hank Greenberg captivated the nation’s attention when he threatened to break Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs.  Greenberg’s pursuit of baseball’s biggest record at the time stirred special interest among Jews. On the streets and in the shops of the Dexter section, people who knew nothing else about baseball, asked one another, “Vos hot Greenberg geton haynt?” (What did Greenberg do today?) Jewish boys like ten-year-old Max Lapides and thirteen-year-old Harvey Frank clipped every article about Greenberg from the papers and pasted them in treasured scrapbooks.

 The mainstream press looked upon Greenberg favorably, which cast all American Jews in a good light. One writer, the New York Daily Mirror’s Dan Parker, thought Greenberg would break Ruth’s record because he was Jewish. “Greenberg has a magnificent physique, a keen batting eye and the fine coordination between eye and muscle that are prerequisites of a home-run specialist,” Parker wrote in a 1938 column. “But none of these attributes is half as important to Hank’s baseball career as the good old Jewish qualities of thoroughness and perseverance that Greenberg had instilled in him by his parents long before he ever handled a baseball.”

This sort of praise bolstered Hank’s image among fellow Jews. “This was a time when Jewish Americans of the second generation were extremely concerned with what the Gentiles said about us,” historian William Simons said. “The fact he garnered positive responses from Gentiles was seen as overwhelmingly positive among Jews.”

The Jewish press proudly touted Greenberg’s accomplishments. “The stock question, when things happen in the world, is whether it is good for the Jews or bad,” a Detroit Jewish Chronicle editorial began. “It has been good for the Jews on the baseball diamond. Hank Greenberg and Harry Eisenstat have contributed to good will--and as long as one hits and the other pitches well, they will remain ambassadors in the movement for better understanding.” B’Nai B’rith Magazine profiled the “Mighty Slugger” who “stands as a model for all baseball players.” American Hebrew called him ”The Jewish Babe Ruth” and said, “Whether Henry Greenberg equals or breaks the record, he has conclusively proved himself to be the number one Jewish ballplayer of all time.” A Jewish periodical in Boston felt it necessary to define a home run for its readers, and Simon A. Feate in his August 2 “Review of the Jewish Week” syndicated feature explained, “The home run is to baseball what a grand slam in no trumps is to bridge.” In other words, they were saying, even if you don’t understand baseball, you must know that here is a Jew doing something extraordinary that’s good for all of us. “We all felt pride,” said Bert Gordon, a lifelong Tiger fan and son of a rabbi. “It was the same pride we felt when the Americans landed on the moon. That was one of your guys doing something exceptional.”

The Boston publication put it thus, “We’ve had pogroms before; we have had wars before; we have had trouble with Arabs before. But never before have we had a Jewish home-run king. . . . A genuine baseball fan just can’t be an anti-Semite. The name of Greenberg was shouted out in Fenway Park last week in eight different languages and in twenty-one different dialects. Greenberg is another form of good-will emissary for the Jewish people.”

In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mighty figure and, in his image as a home run slugger, a symbol of power. He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them. “All of a sudden, big, tall Hank Greenberg comes along,” Rabbi Michael Paley, the baseball scholar, said. “He could hit the ball a mile. That image of the Jew was transformational. It wasn’t only transformational for the Jews, looking at Hank Greenberg and seeing themselves--it was amazing for Jews thinking what other people think of us. I did not grow up feeling vulnerable, the pipsqueak getting sand kicked in our faces, because they didn’t see us that way anymore; they saw us as Americans.”

Hank became the face--and muscles--of Judaism in America. He single-handedly changed the way Gentiles viewed Jews. “That’s one of the great achievements in American history,” Rabbi Paley said. “Hank Greenberg came along when most non-Jews were coming into awareness of Jews pouring into the country. Their American-born children were starting to grow up and come into the workforce. All of a sudden, Hank Greenberg articulates, ‘I’m an American Jew.’ ‘Oh, we didn’t know,’ they say. ‘We thought Jews were the Pharisees from the New Testament.’ He says, ‘No, this is what we look like.’ It’s not as great a historical achievement as Jackie Robinson, but it’s a pretty damn good achievement.”

Greenberg, all six-foot, four-inches of his muscular frame, shattered stereotypes with his very presence on the field. “Hank Greenberg was what they all said we could never be,” civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz said. “He defied Hitler’s stereotype. For that very reason, I think he may have been the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s.”

By 1938, the twenty-seven-year-old Greenberg had matured into a deeper understanding of world events and his place among them. He had begun to read more of the newspapers than the sports pages. He understood the significance of what he was doing. “Being Jewish did carry with it a special responsibility,” Hank wrote in his autobiography. “After all, I was representing a couple of million Jews among a hundred million Gentiles, and I was always in the spotlight. I was there every day, and if I had a bad day, every son of a bitch was calling me names so that I had to make good. I just had to show them that a Jew could play ball. I came to feel that if I, as Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.”

–from Hank Greenberg:  The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren