Review: Hank on First! How Hank Greenberg Became a Star On and Off the Field

Hank on First! How Hank Greenberg Became a Star On and Off the Field

by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Alette Straathof

Apples & Honey Press (imprint of Behrman House), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Belinda Brock

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Hank on First! introduces us to Hank Greenberg, Hall-of-Famer, MVP, and the first Jewish sports superstar. Hank felt that "he had the best job ever—playing first base for the Detroit Tigers." But then the reader learns about the struggles Hank encountered along the way: his Romanian-born parents' initial opposition, the conditions in the minor leagues, and most notably, antisemitism, which he had to deal with throughout his baseball career. He was often subjected to boos and taunts from spectators and even from players on opposing teams. Hank maintained his dignity and used his frustration to fuel his achievements on the field. In 1934, the Tigers were in a tight race to clinch the pennant, but the High Holidays conflicted with two scheduled games. What to do? Although Hank loved baseball, he prioritized his religion. After a consultation with a rabbi and considerable thought on his part, Hank decided to play on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur. Baseball fans were irate and yelled at Hank and called him names on and off the field; however, he remained resolute and attended services on Yom Kippur, where the entire congregation applauded him. The Tigers lost that game, but they still went on to play in the World Series that year.

The part that religion and tradition (in this case, Jewish) play in one's life is an important theme in this book. The author has painted a portrait of a man of great character, who exhibits great determination, listens to his inner voice, and remains true to his principles despite opposition from others. He battles prejudice in his own way, never retaliating, instead letting his actions speak for him. Early on, he rejected the idea of changing his name to hide his Jewish identity despite discrimination. Non-Jewish readers will be able to understand these issues and learn about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur given the seamless way the author introduces these holidays, though perhaps a pronunciation guide might have been helpful.

Hank on First! meets the Sydney Taylor Book Award criteria.The book has positive and authentic Jewish religious content and is appropriate for its target audience in style, vocabulary, format, and illustration. People of various skin tones and ages appear in the book and are dressed in a way that conforms to that time period. The vivid, expressive illustrations complement and enhance the text. The brief back matter includes a photograph of Hank, an inspiring quote, and more details about his life and legacy.
This interesting story is well written in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way. The sports aspect will appeal to young readers. And many children will be able to relate to feeling like an outsider or having a dream that is different than the one their parents have for them. I did wonder if Hank's parents eventually came around and were proud of his accomplishments, but the story really is about his not needing outer validation. The book should be a hit for young readers. Parents, teachers, and librarians will find it a good entree into conversations about prejudice, bullying, tolerance, standing up for what you believe, and following your passion.

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Reviewer Belinda Brock earned a MS in Literacy and Language from University of Chicago and her background is in teaching and educational publishing. She authored GG and Mamela, the first children’s book to address hospice care. Her essays have been featured on Kveller, Jewish Women’s Archive, and HuffPost.


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