Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Interview with Melanie Greenberg

While most people know Hank Greenberg as the best Jewish hitter in baseball history (and I have him number one overall), his major accomplishment may well be his granddaughter, the writer Melanie Greenberg. Melanie recently joined SNY's blog network with her entry, Struck Out Looking, an informed, witty take on the world of baseball. She was gracious enough to discuss her work, and her grandfather, via e-mail.

1. Tell me a bit about how you came to write Struck Out Looking, along with its fantastic predecessor, You Suck Coco Crisp.

I started You Suck Coco Crisp on a whim, more or less. Most of the energy that I was expending on writing was going into my novel, and I wanted a forum where I could just mess around -- say whatever I felt like. It happened to be baseball season, so that's what was on my mind. "You Suck Coco Crisp" has been a long standing joke amongst my friends, and that was how how I went about selecting the blog name. I go into that in my inaugural entry. I think that choosing that particular name was part of what shaped a lot of my recurring themes -- particularly having fun with names and wordplay. As for Struck Out Looking, it's more or less the same content, but since SNY is hosting it now, I try to keep it more narrowly focused on sports. I also try to keep it a little less rambly. As it happened, the day after I came to an informal agreement with SNY, Coco was traded to the Royals, so I was able to justify the name change in a way that didn't make me feel like a corporate sellout.

2. Your dogs are named Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Rookie. Why the impersonal third name- wouldn't it have been more appropriate to go with a particularly impressive Yankee rookie- say Joe DiMaggio, 1936 or Shelley Duncan, 2007?

I felt like it was important that the selection process not be arbitrary. Strange as it may sound, in one way or another, Yogi and Phil both remind me of the players for which they're named. When I first met Rookie, the only player she really called to mind was Thurman Munson. That just didn't seem like a workable dog name. Of course, now that I know her better, I think she has a little bit of the Chuck Knoblauch afraid to throw the ball thing going on. She's a little bit of a headcase. In any event, the name Rookie is actually less impersonal than it seems. I grew up with a dog named Rookie. My godparents then named their dog Rookie after my parents' dog. So, as it happens, my Rookie is actually carrying the meshpucha torch on this one.

3. Do you look at the old picture of your grandfather in the Yankee uniform- the one that allegedly got him traded by the Tigers- and think about what could have been?

Sure, I have definitely indulged the fantasy. However, it's a fantasy that involves me in the dugout working in a consultative capacity with Joe Torre (the eternal Yankees manager) and having thanksgiving every year with Bernie Williams, so it's probably not particularly realistic.

That said, given the chance, I wouldn't rewrite history if i could. For starters, from a purely practical perspective, Yankee Stadium was a graveyard for right-handed hitters in those days. Still is -- but back then, it was even worse. Who knows what that would have meant for his career as a slugger? Plus, I think in a funny way, he was able to have a bigger impact on both the game and the Jewish community as a player in Detroit. It's true that a career in New York would have probably afforded him more long lasting celebrity. But I think that by going to a smaller city that was hit so hard by the Depression and playing for a ball club that was pretty down and out, he was better able to establish a presence and make people aware of him. Not to mention that Detroit was a much bigger hotbed of anti-Semitism than New York. My grandfather never decided to become a ballplayer in order to fight a political fight, though unwittingly, that's what ended up happening. Being in Detroit put him on the frontlines of that fight.

4. There's been tremendous scholarship done on your grandfather, particularly the Aviva Kempner film. What do you think is the biggest thing the study of him has missed so far?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that there's not a lot of scholarship out there on his personal life. In particular, people rarely write anything on the twenty-five years he spent with his second wife, m step-grandmother, Mary Jo Greenberg. This can probably be attributed to the fact that he was a private person. As far as his career is concerned, there is very little out there about his time as a baseball executive. In addition to being the first Jewish GM in baseball for the Cleveland Indians, he was also part owner of both the Indians and White Sox along with the legendary Bill Veeck.

5. Can you imagine what kind of reaction a legit Jewish star would get here in New York?

I think if you could get a Derek Jeter caliber star, who was either a nice, single boy (e.g. not making Page Six on a biweekly basis for being out at all hours every night with a different starlet) or a family guy with good values, and he was openly Jewish playing for a New York team, people would go crazy.

But I do think that he would have to meet both of those qualifications in order to evoke any kind of real large-scale excitement.

6. Tell me about the novel you are working on- when will the public get a chance to read it?

The book is actually based loosely on my own experience in Cambodia, back in the days when I thought I wanted to go into human rights law. The characters and storyline are very much fictional, however. Essentially, it's about a volunteer who goes to Cambodia all starry-eyed and with the idea in mind that she's going to change the world. As the book unfolds, she discovers that an unfortunate number of the non-profit agencies in the region are almost absurdly ineffective and incapable of navigating the cultural landmines. It's both a coming-of-age and a bit of a satirical look at Western non-profits.

As for when the public will get to read it? You're probably in just about as good of a position to answer that question as I am. I've learned through this process that writing a novel is not actually nearly as challenging as publishing one. I am in the middle of a rewrite at the moment, after which point, I am going to renew my efforts to find an agent. This theoretical agent will try to find me a theoretical publisher, who, if I'm lucky, from what I hear, will have the book on the shelves about 18 months later. So, all told, I think we're talking best-case scenario about three years from now.

7. What is your foremost writing goal over the next five years?

Publish the aforementioned novel -- and then never look at it again.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Odds and Ends

A few quick notes:

The good people at Baseball Prospectus assure me that their 2009 PECOTA projection calling for reduced power from Kevin Youkilis is about the fact that a larger-than-expected number of his fly balls left the park last season--not anti-Semitism. I guess I believe Steve Goldman and Kevin Goldstein... Christina Kahrl and Cliff Corcoran, too.

The general consensus of four very smart baseball people, incidentally, was that Ryan Braun is by far the best Jewish player today. I brought up his awful third base defense, and Goldstein made a great point, that with Braun, as with many players, his bat was major league ready before his glove was.

In all seriousness, go see the Prospectus team anywhere you can-worth your time.

I also see that John Grabow will be playing for Team USA, giving the Stars and Stripes a third Jewish representative to go with Youkilis and Braun.

Later this week, I'll be running down the fantasy prospects in Jewish baseball-who to draft among the Chosen People and when.