Hank Greenberg

The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One

by Mark Kurlansky

Yale, 192 pp., $25

Joe DiMaggio

The Long Vigil

by Jerome Charyn

Yale, 192 pp., $24

Why is there often so much conflict between the enduring images of great athletes and their actual personalities and lives? These two biographies go a long way toward answering this question.

Mark Kurlansky’s Hank Greenberg addresses it directly, with a focus on the slugger’s own conflict about his status as a Jewish sports icon. The book is a somewhat dry account of Greenberg’s somewhat dry life: It is well-written, clear and concise, and offers fairly thorough background on both the history of Jewish involvement in baseball and the swell of American anti-Semitism in the 1930s, as Greenberg was breaking into the major leagues. Greenberg, a hulking 6-foot-3 first baseman, became the first Jewish baseball superstar. He faced down anti-Semites on the field and was celebrated by American Jews for refusing to play on Yom Kippur (although he had just played on Rosh Hashanah and was a totally secular Jew). In fact, as Kurlansky points out, Greenberg’s hatred of anti-Semitism had more to do with his desire to be considered a fully assimilated American than with an inclination to assert loyalty to his religious and cultural heritage. For him, Judaism was “an accident of birth,” not a cause—and certainly not the religious or moral foundation of his life.

But for some reason, despite this irony and Greenberg’s celebrity, his symbolic importance, and his on-field accomplishments, Kurlansky’s account just isn’t all that interesting. Perhaps it’s because the story has already been told so many times before, or because American anti-Semitism is largely dormant, or because the idea of a Jewish sports star is totally remote, unlike in the 1930s when Greenberg was in his prime and Jews were a force in boxing and absolutely dominant on the basketball court (what a world!).

Whatever the cause of its overall dullness, Hank Greenberg is thankfully free of the babble that makes up a good deal of sportswriting these days, including Jerome Charyn’s Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, an overwrought, incoherent biographical ramble that focuses on DiMaggio’s fractured relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Here is a cringe-inducing exercise in Epic Baseball Poetry, that brand of sportswriting that makes anyone who has an interest in sports and writing wish the two had never been combined.

From its inauspicious beginning—The Long Vigil opens with this comically grandiose phrase: “He was the nonpareil”—to its nonsensical conclusion (“DiMaggio takes us [into] an incredible chasm where no one else has ever dared to go”), this is a good example of why sportswriters often give sports and writing a bad name. First, no book about baseball should use the word “suzerainty,” which is done repeatedly here in reference to DiMaggio’s post in center field. The Long Vigil is so muddled, so full of mixed metaphors and non sequiturs and inexplicable changes of tense, that I wondered if it was meant to be satirical. For who could write something like this, about DiMaggio’s retirement, without a shred of irony?

[DiMaggio] wasn’t really suited to become a relic. He didn’t have the temperament. He couldn’t pretend to be a clown, as the Babe had done. But he would be demoted to the very same scrapheap. .  .  . The Yankee management was as nervous about him as it had been about the Babe— their sway was much too large for the hucksters and showmen who had to run a club. But the Jolter had an additional burden, that blazing sensibility of his. He was so quick to wound. And without his suzerainty in center field, the Jolter would leap from wound to wound for the rest of his life, trapped by the very skills that had once sustained him. There wasn’t much place for an ex-gazelle.

Charyn refers to DiMaggio as The Jolter, The Clipper, The Dago, the Daig, DiMaggio, DiMag, The Big Guy, and Marilyn’s Slugger. At one point, he concludes that DiMaggio, who had taken to signing autographs at memorabilia shows, was a “moody cash cow.” Then he asserts, in apparent seriousness, that “Gay Talese wasn’t wrong to compare him to a matador. There are no bulls on a baseball diamond, yet there might as well have been. DiMaggio lived in that constant danger zone where a bull might gore a man.”

So The Dago’s suzerainty was a danger zone full of man-goring bulls. No wonder he was such a moody cash cow. He was also, apparently, no intellectual. After he returned from Moscow, DiMaggio’s main observation about the capital city of the Soviet Union was that “you can’t get a corned beef sandwich there.” Charyn laments: “The man who had the eyesight of a hawk, who could spot Bob Feller’s best curve by the way the stitches spun around on the ball, could not lend us one syllable about the particular fall of sunlight on the Kremlin’s spires or describe the crowds in Red Square.”

Here is some insight into the main problem for people who write “seriously” about sports: Hitting and catching a baseball have nothing to do with intellectual curiosity or philosophical acumen or artistic ability. Professional athletes are, from a very young age, of a completely one-track mind: They play sports, all the time. What is most interesting about any athlete is what he (or she) does on the field, and problems arise when writers begin imputing implications to hitting or throwing a ball. In the old days, people were amazed that Joe DiMaggio could spot Bob Feller’s best curveball and smack the daylights out of it, and that was enough. But then writers got it into their heads that sports had to mean something, there had to be something deeper going on: It couldn’t all just be for fun. Unfortunately, those same people have made careers writing about sports, inflating their importance and seriousness and creating expectations of what athletes should be as humans. And it’s unavoidable that great athletes fail to live up to those expectations, especially with writers like Jerome Charyn behind the typewriter.

Zachary Munson is a writer in Washington.

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