Happy Birthday Hank!

The Core Belief

The main virtue missing from today’s overpaid narcissistic athletes is class. Posses, domestic violence charges, weapons arrests, drugs, DUI’s and apologies for said behavior offered only to ensure the new contract numbers will be high enough. Unfortunately, the public seems to garner a perverse enjoyment from our athletic hero’s miserable criminal activity. The larger the fuck up, the more a salivating, adoring fandom will pine for an audience with tarnished athlete.

Why do we fans of the American games put up with these despicable flaws in personality and lack of any sort of dignity – quarterback Mike Vick engaging in dog fighting and canine murder, pitcher Brett Myers beating his wife several times so badly his crimes went from the misdemeanor to the felony, linebacker Ray Lewis watching a murder during Super Bowl week, first baseman Raphael Palmero lying to Congress about steroid usage (ok, they lie to us but still…)? Perhaps a desire to see mistakes overcome, redemption played out in its most dramatic form; whatever it still is embarrassing to watch the men and women who are able to achieve greatness in our games fall so far.

As we celebrate the New Year, I’ve been thinking about these modern athletes, unable to overcome their flaws and the athlete’s of yore, who aren’t far from their current brethren. Quarterback Bobby Layne drank to excess, all the time. Shortstop Rogers Hornsby was a hardcore racist. Baseball player Pete Rose is still a degenerate gambler. Safety Jack Tatum put a man in a wheelchair and was happy, if not arrogant, about his paralyzing hitting prowess.

However, this puts me in the mind to remember a personal hero (for me and many a generation of Jewish boys who wanted to/were athletes) – Detroit Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg. To be sure, Greenberg was flawed – he hung out with the Purple Gang and was certainly known to enjoy the finer things in life a la Joe DiMaggio. However, like Jackie Robinson whom Greenberg would befriend in 1947 while he was breaking the color barrier, “Hammerin’” Hank understood he had a responsibility above and beyond just being a ball player. After all, Greenberg was the first easily identifiable Jewish baseball player. (There had been other Jewish athletes but they changed their names.) Indeed, Greenberg was the first marquee Jewish athlete in the country’s history.

Hank, famously, refused to play on Yom Kippur and stood up to the massive anti-Semitism thrust upon him by the Chicago White Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Along the way, he won over many fans, non-Jews and Jews alike, for the dignified manner in which he carried himself on the field. Jackie Robinson collided with Greenberg (then in his last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates) early in his groundbreaking 1947 season. Instead of saying nothing to Jackie or using various slurs as others in the National League were want to do, Hank Greenberg invited Robinson out to dinner. When asked about their conversation, Jackie Robinson said of Greenberg “class is written all over him.”

The United States is in yet another age of the grossly indulged athlete, actor, politician, president etc.

Perhaps the simple lessons Hank Greenberg, whose 100th birthday would have been on New Year’s Day, imparted to us all that day in 1947 should be remembered: don’t forget where you came from and remember to help, not hinder, your neighbor.

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