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February 28, 2013
In A Pickle
Scroll through Amazon's top-selling books of 2012 and you'll see the expected assortment: The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, scads and scads of "practical" books (SAT prep guides, cookbooks, The Power of Habit), John Grisham. What you don't see are biographies. I count only two: Walter Isaacson's profile of the very recently deceased Steve Jobs and a new Thomas Jefferson book by Jon Meacham, the former editor-in-chief of Newsweek and a current editor at Random House.
I can't/won't make any grand cultural claims about the genre, but on a personal level, to give you a sense of where I'm going to be coming from, there's this: I was markedly more interested in biographies when I was 12 than I am now. I remember my excitement at seeing Rickey Henderson's auto (with John Shea) on the New Releases shelf at the Salinas Public Library in 1993, and devouring the behind-the-scenes tales, down to his birth in a car on the way to the hospital on Christmas. In more recent times, though, I've probably read more biography-of-a-thing books than biographies of humans (think Robert Sullivan's Rats or C.J. Chivers's The Gun). I still read nonfiction books and I still read about people (a good New Yorker profile may give me more joy than any other type of magazine piece), but I don't read nonfiction books about people.
The why of this disconnect does not boil down to a sole cause. The mishmash at the heart of it involves who I married (I just asked my wife about the last biography she read—she shrugged), cultural elitism (biographies are so mainstream, bro), available time (billing like a lawyer and writing like a blogger means that Scott Pilgrim looks a lot more inviting than the latest tome on Abraham Lincoln), and, most crucially, readily available information. Why would I read 300 pages on Rickey Henderson when I can get the CliffsNotes version on Wikipedia and have his stats and salary and awards on Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus, not to mention the B-R Bullpen and, for many players, the SABR Biography Project?
All of which is to say that my approach to John Rosengren's new book Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, due out March 5th from NAL, is likely substantially different from yours if you're the type of reader who enjoys biographies.
Hank Greenberg is a substantial topic, a massively important figure in baseball history as the first Jewish star of the game and as, further, a Jewish star during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and, eventually, World War II. Greenberg lost 4 1/2 seasons to that war, including the vast majority of 1941, the year after he was recognized with his second Most Valuable Player award, even though he could have served much less time had he so desired. He posted a 158 career OPS+ and played in four World Series, winning two. His Baseball-Reference WAR-based JAWS score is only slightly below average for his position despite missing the aforementioned massive amount of time serving in the Army. You would expect and hope, based on his performance and cultural importance, that books on Greenberg would populate the country's bookshelves in great number. Do a Library of Congress subject search, though, and you'll find a shocking paucity of material: before 2010, the only book available on Greenberg's life was his own autobiography, a work that Rosengren notes multiple times is riddled with factual inaccuracies.
Despite the existence, as you can see at that link, of Mark Kurlansky's Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want To Be One, Rosengren claims a sort of pride of place for his book, noting in the acknowledgments that he set out to write "the definitive biography" of Greenberg. (Rosengren even cattily (one might say) dismisses Kurlansky's book as "a biography put out by the Yale Press [sic]" without specifically naming it. His beef appears to be that Kurlansky relied too heavily on Greenberg's own flawed memories as relayed in his autobiography.) We cannot judge Rosengren's historical efforts without going back over the same research he did, but the array of sources listed in the end matter of his book is impressive in breadth and depth, and Rosengren's reliance on Greenberg's autobiography appears limited to Greenberg's reactions and impressions and emotions, not to the facts.
Those sources, the historical work of digging up facts and laying them out in a clear fashion, are certainly the strength of Hero of Heroes. If you want to know how Greenberg spent his idle time in the offseason between 1937 and 1938, how his contract negotiations went (always contentious, as it turns out—Greenberg credibly threatened to hold out seemingly every year, and made a remarkable salary for the time because of it), what he did to stay in shape (handball and hiring local kids to pitch batting practice, mostly), and even at which notable local figure's house he was known to appear for dinner, this is the book for you. The times themselves and the remove from which we view those times with a certain amount of wonder and perhaps disbelief carry the story. On the field, a pitcher might start two out of three World Series games, a lumbering left fielder can come back to baseball at 34 having not played a full season since 29 and put up a 166 OPS+, and umpires warn opposing benches that they've gone a bit too far with the usual antisemitism. Off the field, the biggest star in baseball can roll down to a local park and play a pickup game with some kids and Henry Ford can receive the Grand Cross of the Golden Eagle from Germany in 1938 (the same year, going back on the field, that a Jewish ballplayer in the same city as Ford is making a run at Babe Ruth's home-run record (and winding up just short, at 58)).
Facts are just facts, though, and a book is not a series of bullet points, recitations of research. It needs something more, something like thematic through-lines, a compelling character arc, authorial point-of-view, or scintillating prose fireworks. Without some extra element above the bare facts, what's the point of writing a new work rather than making a scrapbook of relevant newspaper clippings and transcripts of interviews with family and contemporaries?
Unfortunately, Rosengren's work, to my eye, lacks this additional element. The prose is sturdy and workmanlike and the closest thing to a theme is the occasional discussion of Judaism's effect on Greenberg and Greenberg's effect on the American Jewish population at a time when assimilation could not be assumed, when cultural and language barriers still loomed large, when, as mentioned, antisemitism was not only rampant but acceptable. A more focused book with the goal of truly delving into these issues, of teasing out Greenberg's role, not exactly happily accepted, as figurehead for an entire population, might have felt more vital, more lively, more important. Maybe this isn't fair. The book is what it is and Rosengren set out to do what he set out to do. Blaming the author for telling a story that he was interested in (Greenberg's life from beginning to end in all its aspects) rather than the one I'm interested in might be the literary equivalent of bitching that Jose Molina doesn't hit well enough. An old popular sabermetric tenet, one that I learned from Joe Sheehan but the actual provenance of which I cannot nail down with any authority, is that we ought to judge a player for what he does, not what he doesn't do.
Even applying that teaching, though, Rosengren's book doesn't fully satisfy. Telling a fully contextualized story of a famous Jewish-American ballplayer requires a weaving of facts from inside and outside Greenberg's life, from inside and outside the American Jewish population, from inside and outside baseball. The book does not so much weave as it does stack: paragraphs upon paragraphs of description of a Tigers' pennant run (frequently in mind-numbing detail, a maddening trait given the easy availability of box scores via Retrosheet) are followed by paragraphs describing the latest on Hitler's march toward power in Europe, which are themselves followed by a paragraph on Greenberg's dating life or relationship with the media. The structure implies only that all these things happened; it makes no claims about how they happened in relation to each other or what they meant.
Where Rosengren's declining to draw strong connections between the elements of his story most hurts is in those elements that are in conflict. Greenberg was frequently lauded by the media for giving back to the community and, more basically, for being a genuinely good person. On the other hand, celebrity, a new phenomenon in that time, was something Greenberg wore testily, resulting in grudges and minor feuds with certain reporters. Rather than illustrating in Greenberg a duality, a strain caused by his simultaneous desire to be left alone and to be a great ballplayer (and thus necessarily a public figure), these two strands of his personality are left to dangle on their own, the hard work of reconciling the competing characteristics undone.
I laid out my position on biographies right from the outset for a reason: I don't get my jollies from reading a book just to learn facts about the subject, but lots of other people do. Thus, I make no claim that the book is bad. Indeed, I can be less faint: I did not actually not enjoy the book. Rosengren knows how to construct a sentence and a paragraph (skills less universal among people who write than I would wish) and I did, in the end, learn: about Greenberg himself, about the way the game was played in the 1930s, about some of the personalities around the slugger, and, most of all, about the ridiculous fact that he was known as "Hankus Pankus." Maybe that's enough.