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Book review: 3 books about baseball greats

“At his core,” writes Mark Kurlansky, “he was just the son of immigrants trying to move beyond their world and achieve a prosperous American life.” The author is describing Hank Greenberg, the slugging first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, whose Jewish parents fled Romania and raised their children in the South Bronx. But Kurlansky could have been writing about Joe DiMaggio, the legendary centerfielder for the New York Yankees, whose father came from Sicily at age 26, fished the waters of San Francisco Bay and spoke broken English with a heavy accent.

The two men were born three years apart (Greenberg in 1911, DiMaggio in 1914), and their careers overlapped from the mid-1930s to the late ’40s. The Jew and the Italian both used baseball to leave their immigrant families and languages and neighborhoods behind and craft new identities as full-fledged Americans. Hank (born Hyman) and Joe (named for his father, Giuseppe) lived the oldest of American stories, seeking a new frontier where they could reinvent themselves. A diamond was their prairie, a bat their sodbuster. Once asked why he played baseball, Greenberg replied: “Escape.”

These three books vary widely. In Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One (Yale Univ., $25), Kurlansky focuses on his subject’s ethnic identity and role in the Jewish community. For my money, it’s the best of the lot because it kept surprising me. I did not know, for example, about all the Jews named Cohen who played in the majors under pseudonyms like Cooney and Corey. Novelist and cultural critic Jerome Charyn is entranced by DiMaggio’s failure to hit the curveballs thrown by his second wife, the former Norma Jeane Mortensen (another reinvented American, who took the name Marilyn Monroe). Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil (Yale Univ., $24) is often a lazy book, relying more on literary flourishes than revealing research. In “ 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports ” (Sports Illustrated, $26.95), Kostya Kennedy examines in great detail Joltin’ Joe’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, perhaps the most remarkable record in all of sports. A good tale, but Kennedy has one habit that drives me crazy: He professes to know — repeatedly — what characters “thought” or “felt” 75 years ago. I think he’s making it up. And if he were in my class in journalistic ethics, I’d fail him.

Still, I enjoyed these stories. On a personal level, the two ballplayers were quite different. Greenberg was a mensch, a gregarious fellow with the charm and confidence to “mingle with the upper crust of Gentiles and Jews.” DiMaggio was a frigid figure, a “living ghost” totally lacking in social skills. Hank once said of Joe, “If he said hello to you that was a long conversation.”

But the two of them, Hymie and Giuseppe, shared the same journey. Both disappointed their hard-working parents by turning to a frivolous pursuit, whacking a horsehide ball with a wooden bat.

Both had to battle the nativism that periodically tests our tradition of tolerance. Playing in the home city of Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, “the two most notorious and virulent anti-Semites in America,” Greenberg usually ignored the taunts that came with the game. But one day, as he ran to first base, a player on the White Sox bench called him a “big yellow Jew bastard.” After the game he stormed into the Sox clubhouse and demanded to know who had issued the insult. Greenberg was a Jew and a gentleman. He was also very large and very tough. No one said a word. Greenberg turned and left. DiMaggio lived with similar slurs. His nickname was “Dago” or simply “Daig,” and Italian stereotypes were so pervasive in 1941 that a Life magazine profile said of Joe, “Instead of olive oil or smelly grease, he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.”

Prejudice eventually gave way to perform­ance. The surging wave of ambitious newcomers was reshaping American life — as players on the field and customers in the stands. With so many Italians in the New York area, the Yankees played up DiMaggio. But there were even more Jews than Italians in New York, and on slow days “the newspapers occasionally floated, even advocated, the potential benefits of a DiMaggio-for-Greenberg trade.”

In choosing partners, as well as professions, both men displayed a lifelong determination to defy “confining tribalism.” Before Marilyn Monroe, DiMaggio briefly married Dorothy Olsen, a blond Protestant from Minnesota who used Dorothy Arnold as a stage name. Greenberg’s first wife was Caral Gimbel, heiress to a great department-store fortune, an assimilated German Jew who loved horses and slept late and could never adjust to her husband’s immigrant work ethic. In the end, Hammerin’ Hank and Joltin’ Joe posted higher averages on the field than at the altar. These three marriages ended in divorce. Tribalism is not so easy to escape after all.

Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His latest book, “Our Haggadah,” written with his wife, Cokie Roberts, came out this spring.

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