John Rosengren Q&A

October 7, 2019
Author John Rosengren sets the record straight on the brilliance of baseball legend Hank Greenberg in a new biography.

“Writing a book is like writing a magazine article. I look at my notes, come up with an outline, find the story I want to tell, figure out how I want to tell the story—there needs to be a story in every chapter—and the chapters have to build in succession. With the Greenberg book I had a general idea what the story was, but the details fell into place as I found them. And then there’d be these anecdotes along the way that illuminated the overall story.”

Why did you think a new biography should be written about Hank Greenberg?

No one had written a decent biography about him, despite the fact he was such an important figure. There’s Hank’s autobiography that Ira Berkow wrote called The Story of My Life, which had 600 pages of manuscript transcribed from tape recordings that Greenberg made the last summer of his life. The result of Berkow’s book is a chopped-up narrative and it’s riddled with mistakes. I thought there was room for a Greenberg biography.

What kind of research did you do?

I went to Cooperstown, the New York Public Library, Detroit and its public library, the Tigers archives. I did research at the Louisville Slugger museum in Kentucky. I got records from the FBI, his military records, and then Ellis Island, and the National Labor Relations Board stuff. I also talked to as many people as I could find.

Your book is 392 pages. How long did it take you to report and write?

I signed the contract in January of 2010 and finished in September of 2012. Of course, I had done a lot of research and writing before then to get my proposal ready.

How do you get started organizing a project like this, something with such depth?

It’s kind of like writing a magazine article. I look at my notes, come up with an outline, find the story I want to tell, figure out how I want to tell the story—there needs to be a story per chapter—and the chapters have to build in succession. I had a general idea what the story was, but the details started falling into place as I found them. And then there’d be these little anecdotes along the way that illuminated the overall story.

What new information is in your book for Greenberg historians?

I think I set the record straight on his decision about whether to play on the high holy days in 1934; there was some misinformation there. One guy asked me, “How did he get custody of his kids, after he got divorced in the 1950s?” It was unusual for a man to get full custody of three children. I got the court records on the divorce and also talked to his family and discovered that his wife had been having an affair, so the judge awarded Greenberg custody. But probably the biggest thing that I found was the controversy over his being drafted in 1941, where he asked for a deferment, even though it wasn’t technically that, and there was furor over that. It raised debate over an individual’s capitalist interest to pursue the American dream versus the civic duty to serve one’s country. And then he gets classified as having flat feet, which escalates it to another level, and then it gets determined that the flat feet aren’t a problem at all. And the fact that he’s Jewish gives all these angles for people to make anti-Semitic remarks.

How many seasons did he lose to the war?

Four.

Put Greenberg in context on his stature in baseball.

Take 1941. When you think of 1941, you think of Ted Williams hitting .406 and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. But in the spring, Greenberg was the most prominent baseball player. He was the reigning AL MVP, he was the highest-paid player, he was young, good-looking, he’d already had a lot of success. He was the guy.

And how do his career numbers stack up against the other greats?

Guys like Williams played longer and put up bigger numbers, but per season Greenberg was extraordinary. His RBI numbers are remarkable—he had 183 in 1937. No one’s had more than 150 RBI in over 50 years.

What was it that got you started thinking about Greenberg?

I had read The Echoing Green by Josh Prager about Bobby Thomson’s home run. I read that and thought, What other dramatic home runs have ended a season like this? I wanted to write a magazine article. I came across Greenberg’s grand slam in 1945 that gave the Tigers the pennant, and I thought, This is a great article, and I wrote it for Memories and Dreams, the Hall of Fame publication. As I was researching the article, I realized there’s a story here that’s worthy of a book.

Do you think you’d like the man if he was sitting here with us?

Oh yeah. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and he could be thin-skinned, especially about the press, but everything I know about the guy seems to indicate he’d be just a great guy to know, very kind and generous.