July 03, 1989 12:00 PM

Edited by Ira Berkow

During the baseball summers of the ’30s and ’40s, there were countless Yankee fans in the Bronx. There were also a few Giants fans and the usual quirky Brooklyn fans—but why did so many neighbors of the “House That Ruth Built” root for the Detroit Tigers? Many were Jewish—and thus fans of Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish superstar and a Bronx native. From 1933 to 1947 (all but one season with Detroit), Greenberg was a symbol to his kinsmen. In this posthumously published autobiography (he died in 1986), he writes passionately about the years he played so passionately. “Sure there was added pressure being Jewish,” says Greenberg of 1938, when he hit 58 homers. “How the hell could you get up to home plate every day and have some son of a bitch call you a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie and get on your ass without feeling the pressure.”

Greenberg denies that pitchers purposely walked him in 1938 to keep a Jew from matching Ruth’s 60-homer record. He blames only himself. “In the final game…the shadows were starting to come across the field…. It kept getting darker and darker,” he writes of a game eventually called because of darkness. ” ‘I’m sorry, Hank. But this is as far as I can go,’ ” he quotes umpire George Moriarty. “I said, ‘That’s all right, George, this is as far as I can go, too.’ ”

In his career, Greenberg totaled 331 home runs and 1,276 RBIs despite spending the 1941-45 seasons in the service. And the 6’4″ Greenberg was also a towering presence off the field. He became an idol to Jews by refusing to play on Yom Kippur in 1934. He challenged teammates to repeat insults to his face (none dared). And he befriended Jackie Robinson during the black player’s long first season.

The book, written in Greenberg’s own voice, betrays a certain clumsiness in the prose. (Berkow, a New York Times columnist, edited Greenberg’s manuscript.) But if there are awkward sections, they are amply compensated for by the stature of the story, the dignity of the career and the reminder that, in its nobler moments, sports can be more than merely heroic metaphor. (Times, $19.95)

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