day 5: the hebrew hammer

Today is five days of the omer: hod she’b’hesed.

I almost did Albert Pujols today, despite the fact that he tortured the Astros for years as a Cardinal — and is apparently still able to at almost 40, as recently as last year as an Angel. I do have one fond association with him, however: My grandmother, notorious for mispronouncing words, always said his name as if the middle consonant were like the “j” in “juice.” (I miss you, Granny!) And of course I could have chosen one of my favorite Astros, Jeff Bagwell (yes, I will probably continue to point out every Astro I could have chosen).

But in this project about Jewish ritual, the Jewish player wins out, so today I’m focussing on Tigers first baseman Hank Greenberg. You may know him as the other guy who refused to play on Yom Kippur. (Yeah, I’ll get to Koufax.) He was also a Hall of Famer, two-time MVP, and one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history.

In 1938 he was chasing Ruth’s home run record, but there were many (including not a few in Detroit, one of the most antisemitic cities in the country at the time, the home of Henry Ford) who didn’t want to see a Jew outstrip the Bambino. It seems there were a few pitchers that year who walked Greenberg to prevent him from reaching that goal. His own experiences with fan and player slurs later motivated his active support in his last year of play for Jackie Robinson during the latter’s rookie year. But Greenberg wasn’t always so comfortable with his Judaism:

hank-greenberg-detroit-tigers-hall-of-fame-baseball

When I was playing, I used to resent being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer. I wanted to be known as a great ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer.

Ultimately, this makes him a great fit for today’s sefirah, which can be understood as “humility” or “gratitude.” Rabbi Art Green says in Ehyeh: “Hod is the admission that we cannot do it all, the acknowledgment that we have to accept ourselves as we are and be grateful for life as it has been given to us.”

Aviva Kempner won a Peabody Award in 2002 for her documentary film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” and I wish I could tell you about it, but it’s only available on DVD. In the absence of that, here’s a short clip of The Hebrew Hammer hitting a home run in his last game in May 1941 in Detroit before enlisting in the Army. He wouldn’t return to the Tigers until June 1945 after his discharge.

For recognizing how his own experience could be a boon to others, let’s count Day 5, hod she’b’hesed, in honor of Hankus Pankus.

 

 

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