Compleat Biographer Conference Preview II: Panelists William Souder and John Rosengren in Conservation

John Rosengren, author of the critically acclaimed Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes, will join fellow BIO member (and fellow Minnesotan) William Souder for a panel discussion of “The Book Tour: Real and Virtual” at the Compleat Biographer Conference in May. Rosengren recently spoke with Souder about his work.

William Souder: I believe you got started on the Greenberg book by doing a magazine article. What did you see in Hank Greenberg’s story that made you want to do a full biography?

John Rosengren: In researching an article about his ninth-inning, pennant-clinching grand slam on the final day of the 1945 season and seeing how that heroic moment resonated not just with Tiger fans but throughout the Jewish community, I realized the stature of Greenberg as a cultural icon. With a little more research, I was surprised to learn that no one had published a biography about Greenberg, so I realized there was room for—and a need for—one.

WS: Every biography presents a unique challenge. What was the biggest hurdle on this one?

JR: Not long after I sent the proposal to my agent, I realized that Yale Press planned to publish Mark Kurlansky’s biography of Greenberg. Since Kurlansky has a bigger name than I do and his book was going to hit the market a year or two before mine, that challenged me to out-research and out-write Kurlansky. I’ll leave it to readers to judge the competition.

WS: Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish superstar in an American professional sport. How important was that at the time? Was Greenberg a willing role model?

JR: It was huge. This was a time (the ‘30s) when there was a confluence of three critical factors that catapulted Greenberg into the national consciousness:  It was a time of intense ethnic identification, a time of rampant anti-Semitism (not just in Europe but in America as well) and a time when baseball truly was the national pastime. So he was immediately thrust into the national spotlight as a beacon of hope for Jews—in the days before Israel, his success was their success—and the representative of the Jews. For many non-Jews, Greenberg was the only Jew they knew much about. He did not seek either role nor want to play either part—as the son of immigrants, he simply wanted to assimilate playing baseball—but as he matured he willingly bore both mantels.

WS: Biographers often believe their subject is “larger than life.” At 6’4” and 220 pounds—not unusual for a ballplayer now, but extra-large in the 1930s and 1940s—Greenberg really was a big man in every sense of the word. How do you maintain balance and objectivity when everything about your subject seems almost mythic?

JR: I don’t like it when biographers try to make their subject more important than he or she was. I wanted to place Greenberg in the context of the times and portray him as authentically as possible. In his case, he had many personal shortcomings that sometimes got the better of him. For instance, his competitiveness and jealousy soured his relationship with Al Rosen and, I believe, may have cost Rosen a place in the Hall of Fame. But his failings make his heroic actions stand out by contrast. They also make him human and, as a result, I hope, a sympathetic character.

WS: The professional life of a baseball player is meticulously quantified and recorded—in box scores, season and career stats, daily stories, etc. This would seem a tremendous advantage for a biographer. Talk about how you expanded your research beyond the numbers and the game summaries.

JR: Actually, the records during Greenberg’s day were not as meticulous as today. One researcher found a scorekeeping error that meant Greenberg did not get credited with an RBI in 1937 that would have put him in a tie with Lou Gehrig for the American League record for most RBI in a single season: 184. One of my goals in writing this book was to set the record straight on Greenberg’s story because it has in some ways been misrepresented and distorted. I talked to as many people as I could who knew Greenberg, though I knew their memories might not be accurate. So I went to newspapers, letters, diaries, military records, court records, and as many original documents as I could find. Greenberg’s military records turned up several surprises. The letters from fans—and bigots—that I found in the Tigers’ archives also provided some rich material.

WS: Hank Greenberg was one of a number of high-profile baseball players who left the game to fight in World War II. Was his military career more remarkable than others because he served so long? How did being Jewish influence the way people saw his military service? Did he fight in Europe against the Nazis?

JR: Greenberg’s first hitch, from May 7 to December 5, 1941, before the U.S. entered the war, was controversial at the time when he was drafted. That touched off a national debate on one’s duty to serve versus the American dream to make as much money as he could, a debate tainted by anti-Semitic attacks. He solidified his status as a national hero when he became the first MLB player to re-enlist after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He never fought in Europe, matter of fact never fired at the enemy during the war, but he did serve six months in the China-Burma-India theater at his request to get closer to the fighting. His most heroic action came in rushing to the aid of a B-29 crew after their plane crashed during takeoff. The largest casualty of the war for him personally was losing his faith in organized religion.

WS: You’re going to join me on the Book Tour panel at this year’s conference. I know you’ve done a lot of your own promotion and events planning. Tell us how that has gone. Any advice?

JR: I’ve managed to book events in Atlanta, Chicago, Cooperstown, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Montclair (New Jersey), Naples, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Rochester (New York), St. Paul, and Washington, D.C. That includes multiple events in several of those cities. The most grueling part is the time spent booking these. I’ve also done a lot of radio, regional and national. Best advice I can offer is to use whatever contacts you have to get into various venues. I’ll expand upon that during the panel.

WS: I have to ask about Alone in the Trenches, the book you co-wrote with pro-footballer Esera Tuaolo after he came out when his career was over. Recently we’ve seen college football player Michael Sam come out only weeks ahead of his entry into the NFL draft, and Jason Collins is playing again in the NBA after coming out. Do you think we’re at an historical moment in the acceptance of gay athletes in major professional sports?

JR: I think we’re making progress with Sam having the courage to come out before the draft and for Collins to actually get signed to play after coming out. We still have a long ways to go, of course, in universal acceptance. I think Esera’s story is more relevant than ever. His courage in coming out when he did helped pave the way for athletes like Sam and Collins and, I hope, more to come.