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Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One, by Mark Kurlansky

Here are two books about heroism and its myths. These brief lives of American baseball icons of the 1930s and 1940s, both members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, give us two very different men: one who was not merely reluctant to be consistently mythologized and valorized, but was embarrassed by it, and one who cherished and burnished his legend, and was imprisoned by it, until the day he died.

The former is Hank Greenberg, the great slugger of the Detroit Tigers. As the prolific Mark Kurlansky (bestselling author of Cod and 1968) tells it, Greenberg (born Hyman; "Hymie" into his teens) was the not just the first Jewish baseball superstar, a sort of golem (a mythic protector) for American jews. Greenberg's athletic rise was in lockstep (certainly not in goosestep) with that of Hitler. Anti-Semitism was surging during one of the United States' periodic fits of nativism, and Detroit was its hot centre, with Henry Ford's newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, existing mainly to attack Jews, and Rev. Charles Coughlin spewing his venom over the radio.

Thus, Greenberg, a huge and powerful man who withstood with dignity (mostly; early on he got into a few scraps) the constant taunting of fans ("Christ-killer!") and opposing teams, came to be seen as a symbol of Jewish power and resistance - and his famous decision not to play on Yom Kippur during the heat of a pennant race as a powerful symbol of tribal loyalty.

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But Kurlansky, though he shows great respect for Greenberg's gentlemanly qualities and thoughtfulness, makes it clear that, although the baseball player hated anti-Semites (and all bigotry), and felt some tribal obligation, he was essentially irreligious, even anti-religious, and in fact, that was likely the only Yom Kippur he ever spent in a synagogue.

Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper, is another story altogether. Famed for his grace and athleticism (whereas Greenberg was hulky and somewhat plodding), DiMag in retirement always demanded to be introduced as the "greatest living ballplayer." Outside baseball, he was aloof, cold, unresponsive to adoring fans and had nothing to say in conversation.

The hero's mantle was ripped from DiMaggio's broad shoulders by Richard Ben Cramer in A Hero's Life (2000), in which he portrayed the Yankee great as cold, friendless and venal. But Jerome Charyn, a distinguished novelist (most recently, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson), brings a sympathetic imagination to a man whose talents seemed limitless on the field and death-choked off it.

For Charyn, DiMaggio barely existed when he wasn't playing ball; paralyzed by social awkwardness and lack of education, he was tongue-tied and seemingly incurious.

Because DiMaggio was revered, and because the misbehaviour of athletes and politicians was undisclosed by a compliant press, fans learned nothing of his possible ties to gangsters, his callous ignoring of his only son, even of his treatment of Marilyn Monroe during their 274-day marriage as America's royal couple (Charyn is very good on their relationship, which persisted from her death in 1963 to his, 36 years later).

As portrayed by Charyn in this elegant, sympathetic volume, DiMaggio was the saddest of men, an "idiot savant" writing down emotionless details of his financial dealings and mundane activities in notebooks. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, Paul Simon asked. Now we know. Nowhere at all.

Hank Greenberg chose, finally, to embrace only that part of his myth he could live with comfortably. Intelligent, curious, sociable, he became much more than the passionate ballplayer he had been. But poor Joe D. was only his myth; once his career ended, he had no idea how to live.

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Martin Levin is Books editor of The Globe and Mail. He has participated in three fantasy baseball drafts this week.

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