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Discovering the Depths of a Parent's Illness.

Nathaniel Lachenmeyer has written the new book, “The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father’s Struggle with Madness” (Broadway Books). His father, Charles, was a professor of sociology who lived a normal suburban life with his family until the onset of schizophrenia. The disease destroyed his life: he lost his job, his family, and ended up homeless. Nathaniel corresponded with his father until it became too difficult to continue. After learning of his father’s death in 1995, he decided to find out what happened to him.

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Other segments from the episode on March 14, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 14, 2000: Interview with Nathaniel Lachenmeyer; Interview with Stephen Greenberg.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 14, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer Discusses His Father's Struggle With Schizophrenia
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

In the town in which he died, Charles Lachenmeyer was the local homeless guy. No one knew much else about him. It turns out Lachenmeyer was a sociology professor who became homeless after he was overtaken by the symptoms of schizophrenia. His story tells a larger story of many homeless schizophrenics. We'll hear that story told by Lachenmeyer's son, Nathaniel, author of a new memoir about his father.

Also, Stephen Greenberg tells us about his famous father, baseball legend Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball star. Hank Greenberg is the subject of a new documentary film.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Walking through the city, I often pass homeless people who appear to be mentally ill. They talk and argue with people who aren't there, and sometimes they're lost in frightening delusions. And I wonder, what were their lives like before they were living on the street?

One such story is compellingly told in the book, "The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle With Madness." It's a memoir by my guest, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. It recounts how his father went from being a sociology professor to a homeless person who believed at various times that the CIA and FBI were plotting against him, and that he was a prophet of God.

He died in 1995 of a heart attack, six years after Nathaniel had broken off contact with him. After the death, Nathaniel wanted to find out more about what had happened to his father during the years they were estranged. And that led to writing the memoir.

I asked Nathaniel Lachenmeyer what his father's life was like when he was at his most symptomatic.

NATHANIEL LACHENMEYER, "THE OUTSIDER": Really, he was exactly what you see on the street, you know, if you see the -- in the -- New York City, for example, you see the guy looking through the garbage and muttering to himself, and with a sort of hostile air about him. That's what he was like at his worst.

GROSS: And what about how he looked?

LACHENMEYER: Also, it's sort of the uniform of the homeless, unkempt, long hair, long beard. He was an unusually -- he was a very tall man, and he'd become very thin at that point, living on the street, and people had said, for example, that you could see the lice on him at 10 feet away, so very dirty, very unkempt.

GROSS: You had lost touch with him. In fact, you cut off contact with him with a letter saying, "I cannot live in your world, and you cannot live in mine." What had he done that made it feel so necessary for you to take such an extreme action and remove yourself from his life?

LACHENMEYER: It -- he really hadn't done anything. The irony really was that at that point he was much more stable than he'd been in earlier years. But it was sort of the echo of my experiences with him in earlier years, where he would leave sort of abusive and strange answering -- messages on the answering machine or send strange letters accusing my mother of being part of a plot. And he did restrict me from that, he didn't really include me in his ravings.

But that sort of still held sway over my thinking when I was about 20.

GROSS: And you found it frightening, the kind of accusations that he'd make, the delusions that he'd have?

LACHENMEYER: I did. I did. But at the same time, I'd sort of taken it on myself to -- his background was as a sociologist, so there were books in the house, just by chance, on the subject of schizophrenia, and I had read about it. And, you know, I think looking back now, think maybe I should have been a little bit more aware of the symptoms and what they mean.

But at the time, you know, it's just a sort -- a raw experience, and you respond sort of viscerally.

GROSS: You mentioned the kind of scary answering machine messages that he'd leave. Your mother, after they divorced, basically stopped picking up the phone because these calls were so upsetting. And you found the tapes of these answering machine messages in the basement after your father's death.

Maybe you could read one of the transcriptions for us.

LACHENMEYER: Sure. This was a call that took place in -- right around the time of the divorce. He called the machine and he said, "It's me. As promised, here is the letter. William Casey, director, CIA. Sir, on or about March 1981, your agency, in cooperation with AT&T, the Pelham Police Department, and numerous other agencies, did try to have me commit suicide in the following manner. My then-wife deserted me at your instigation, taking my son with her. I was forced into isolation by conspiratorial design.

"The instant coffee in the house had been adulterated with a depressant. I was constantly harassed on the telephone, in my car, on foot by automobiles, and still am. Although unaware of it at the time, I had had this mind-reading technology applied to me, which made my every physical condition noble to you. As a result of this, I did actively seek ways to kill myself. One evening I recall searching the bathroom cabinets for razor blades and drugs.

"At every stage of this process, those responsible were aware of my dire mental state and my active search for available means. Have a good day."

GROSS: You know, I feel like I've heard that phone call and I've read that letter before too. There seems to be similar delusions that a lot of people who are schizophrenic have that involve the CIA and the FBI, that involve feelings that their mind is being read or manipulated, or thoughts are being implanted by, you know, an outside group that's trying to manipulate them.

Do you ever wonder why there are certain kind of patterns in the delusions that seem to manifest themselves in lots of different people with schizophrenia?

LACHENMEYER: I think the reason that those patterns repeat from person to person are because the structure of the disorder is constant, so the -- but the reference points are culturally contingent, so that, you know, 200 years ago, it wouldn't have been the CIA because the CIA didn't exist. It's -- in a very strange, skewed way, the delusions of people with paranoid schizophrenia give you sort of insight into what is, in a more mild form, you know, sort of cultural preoccupations or fears of other people.

You know, in other words, there are a lot of people who are sort of delusional without being mentally ill who have conspiracy theories, and it's simply -- you know, it's sort of more pronounced when you're the victim of the disorder.

GROSS: How old were you when your father started getting symptomatic, and started to frighten you and your mother?

LACHENMEYER: It's hard to pinpoint when the symptoms began, because at the time, I think, when he began to feel the pressure, sort of the -- it coming up, he was drinking heavily, and I think that masked the symptoms. But I think it was clear that he was symptomatic in the late 1970s when I was about 8 or 9.

GROSS: Many of us when we see homeless people on the street, we wonder, What were they like before they were homeless? Who were they before they got this sick? You know, when we see someone who's homeless and clearly mentally ill. Who was your father before he got sick? What were his accomplishments?

LACHENMEYER: He was a sociologist who grew up to a -- sort of with a working-class family in Brooklyn and went to the College of William and Mary, and then got his PhD in sociology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. And he was very prolific, publishing articles very early on, and had two books published in sociology, one when he was 28, one when he was 31. So he was very prolific and very, very -- very intelligent man.

Personally, he -- I think he had sort of problems from an early point. I think he had trouble that nothing you would categorize as schizophrenia, but I think he had a difficult time interacting with people socially. As a father, in the years when I was in the picture, he was remarkable.

GROSS: Remarkable in a good way.

LACHENMEYER: Yes, (laughs) remarkable...

GROSS: (laughs)

LACHENMEYER: No, he was a -- I really think that he saved the best of himself for his work, and he tried to keep his work free of his emerging delusional system and his disorder as long as he could, and the same applied to his approach being a father to me. He was -- there was -- he always listened, treated me as an adult without, I think, spoiling me, took things that I said seriously. And there was a playful quality to our interaction and a love and an affection that I think is probably rare.

GROSS: You've told us a little bit about his paranoid delusions, the ones with the CIA and the FBI. Tell us a little bit more about the delusional world that overcame him.

LACHENMEYER: Basically, it had to do with his work, his work as a sociologist, which sort of remained his principal preoccupation. He was convinced, once the symptoms emerged and he really became ill, that the involvement of the CIA, the FBI, and my mother and all these different agencies and companies in his -- sort of controlling him. He thought that there was a conspiracy, but he thought that the reason for it was that it was an attempt to get control of his sociological research.

And it's sort of -- it's sad, because what was happening -- what had actually happened was that the emergence of his symptoms had contributed to the deterioration of the quality of his work, which led to him losing his job. Once that happened, and sort of things snowballed, he looked at what happened within the context of his delusional system, so he became convinced that everyone was trying to get control of his work.

And basically, what it was, was that if he did what they wanted -- in other words, if he did the work they wanted him to do and made that work available to them, and the "them" is this vague mass of conspiratorial elements -- that everything would be returned to him. In other words, you know, my mother, me, his house, his job.

So it was a -- that was what happened.

GROSS: It's kind of paradoxical that he had investigated schizophrenia. He had even worked as an aide, I think, at a hospital for the mentally ill, in which most of the patients were schizophrenic. And yet he was clueless about his own symptoms.

LACHENMEYER: Yes, it is, it's actually -- one of the interesting things from my perspective that I discovered in writing the book and in researching it was that it wasn't a coincidence. His work -- he worked when he was in college as an attendant at a state hospital, and also sort of looked at that as an opportunity to sort of bring into play in that environment some of the things he was learning in sociology.

And his master's thesis and his dissertation were on schizophrenia. And there actually was a connection, and the connection was that at the time, there was a prevalent theory of what causes schizophrenia, which says that it was a particular type of family. And he had that particular type of family and really made that connection.

It's clear from different interviews I did, that he was aware -- he was -- I make the argument in the book that although he wasn't suffering from schizophrenia at that point, he saw a connection between his family and difficulties he was having in social interaction, and therefore chose to study that theory, which predicted -- and it's no longer widely held -- but predicted that the particular family that he grew up in would lead the individual to develop schizophrenia.

What happened once he became ill -- about 40 percent of people with schizophrenia are, as a function of their disorder, unable to recognize that they're ill. One of the things that emerges, one of the main problems treating people with schizophrenia, is noncompliance with medication. There's no cure, and different medications have different efficacy, but generally it's limited, but what winds up happening is that people -- the 40 percent of people who have no insight into their disorder, the people like my father, what they want -- they don't make a connection between the drugs and their improvement.

And eventually they get off the medication. And there's a wall they really can't cross. And I guess the important point is that it's not -- that is not a personal failing, but it is a symptom.

GROSS: Is this one of the things that made it hard for you as a son, because he didn't recognize that he was delusional, so you couldn't talk about him living in delusions? On the other hand, you didn't want to pretend like the delusions were real, and, and, and, and affirm that reality. So what do you talk about?

LACHENMEYER: Absolutely. That was really the crux of what I was trying to -- what I was going through in my teen years, was -- there was -- I couldn't broach the subject of his illness. You know, there are people with schizophrenia, with or without the benefit of medication, who are aware that they're ill, and those are the people who are going to do the -- have the best outcome. He wasn't one of those.

And it was hard to -- it's impossible to ignore -- or it seems -- it seemed to me impossible to ignore delusions that, you know, incorporated my mother and just seemed so outrageous, and at the same time maintain a relationship with him.

One of the main discoveries I made in writing the book was that that's exactly the challenge that you have to meet, whether it -- you're coming across someone, a homeless paranoid schizophrenic living on the street who's, you know, asking for change, or sits down next to you on a bench, or whether it's a family member, that's exactly the key. The key is to sort of compartmentalize, I think, that part of their world.

Because the most important thing to remember is that person, no matter how alien they appear to be, has the same basic needs, not only housing and shelter and -- but they actually need the human contact. They need the interaction. And very often, their delusional system will, you know, will make it impossible to interact with them.

And the sort of -- I think the -- the -- one of the things I learned in the book was -- one of the gratifying things is that when my father was homeless, there were people who managed to ignore his delusional system and respond to those more basic needs.

GROSS: And you think you could have done that?

LACHENMEYER: I think I should have. I do, I think those answering machine tapes and those early interactions echoed in my head for much longer than they should have. And I think I also made the mistake, sort of an adolescent mistake, of using, in a way, exploiting my father's disorder sort of as a way of giving myself definition.

I really looked at -- my entire world really revolved around the fact that I had a father with this illness, and that sort of turned the focus from him to me. And I guess when I was at an age where I should have been able to see past some of that, that's what prevented me.

GROSS: My guest is Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. His new memoir is called "The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle With Madness." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nathaniel Lachenmeyer, and his new memoir, "The Outsider," is about his father, who became schizophrenic and very paranoid, living in a delusional world and living often homeless on the streets.

Your father write -- started writing these paranoid newsletters with titles like, "How to Destroy Freedom and the World: An Open Letter to the KGB and the CIA." Did he have a circulation, or did these just not go any further than his typewriter?

LACHENMEYER: Sadly, the newsletters were sort of an extension of his sociology. He first wrote and had his work published by other -- by university presses, then began to self-publish his own writing that wasn't really delusional, as he got into more and more trouble with academia. Finally he wound up self-publishing these newsletters and, you know, putting ads out and sending out mailings.

And in doing that, he exhausted a lot of his financial resources. His hope was that if he could get through to people, if he could get the public to recognize this conspiracy for what it was, they wouldn't stand for it. So it was really sort of a calculated gamble on his part, where he really exhausted his ability to protect himself financially in doing this.

Ironically, yes, people did order them. There's still university libraries that have them. And after he moved -- the publishing, the business, was in my parents' home, that address, so after he moved, letters would still come in ordering these delusional newsletters. And some of them were from people who I don't think would necessarily be categorized as mentally ill, but who nevertheless found compelling conspiracy theories and things like that.

I'll say one other thing, if you don't mind, yes?

GROSS: No, no, please.

LACHENMEYER: OK. One of the things -- one of the hardest things, I guess, in my early teen years was, as these newsletters came in, I sort of read them, struggled through them. They were very erudite. The writing -- you know, the vocabulary -- it was all internally consistent, so you could make head or tail of them, and I did eventually. But one of the hardest things was that he self-distributed them, but to many, many people, so, in other words, family, friends, stu -- you know, prof -- teachers where I was going to school, everyone wound up receiving these things.

And actually, as a function of how widespread his distribution of these newsletters was, he -- you know, the FBI and the Secret Service began to keep a file on him, and, you know, he really -- it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a way. His letters -- his newsletters were so widespread that he did come to the attention of the government.

GROSS: Within a year before your father died, he was committed and put on new anti-psychotic drugs. Let's talk about what it -- how he got committed. He had a commitment hearing. How did he end up in that position?

LACHENMEYER: He was living in New Hampshire for a period of seven years or so, moving around a bit, and had been institutionalized twice in New Hampshire in the mid-'80s. In 1992, it looked like, from his perspective, it looked like he was going to be committed again. His condition was deteriorating, he was acting out in public.

And what he did was, he jumped the state line. He moved from New Hampshire to Vermont as an attempt to confound his psychiatrist and case worker's attempt to get him institutionalized. And they only missed him by about a month. They actually came to his apartment and tried to get him committed, but he'd moved across the state.

What happened once he moved to Vermont was that in an attempt to bring him back to New Hampshire, where there was sort of a system in place to help him, his legal guardian took control of his Social Security -- his disability benefits. At that -- in all those years, he was living on about $10,000 a year, a combination of SSI and his pension from his years of teaching. And so for the year that he was living in Burlington, Vermont, he was living on about $250 a month.

What happened later, as his -- as he sort of decompensated, as he became worse, he was no longer on medication, he started acting out more and more, and that had the effect of the banks closing their doors to him, and ultimately him not receiving his pension, the last part of his income. So sort of it became, you know, a narrower and narrower pass, and ultimately he could survive only by panhandling. And it was on a panhandling charge that he was finally arrested and brought before a judge and then committed.

GROSS: When your father was facing his commitment hearing, he kind of on cue demonstrated how delusional he really was. What did he say to the judge?

LACHENMEYER: When the judge was just about to pronounce sentence on him, that is, that he was not guilty of panhandling by reason of insanity, and to have him committed to Vermont State Hospital, he interrupted her and said, "May I make a statement?" And he then -- she said yes, and he pronounced his sentence on the court, before the court had an opportunity to pronounce sentence on him.

And part of what he said is, he said, you know, None of this is real, you have no authority over me. I'm the commander in chief. In other words, at that point, he identified himself, you know, I guess, as being the president of the United States, and therefore that all of the proceedings were a farce.

And interestingly, at the end he said, you know, "And that is reality." He -- you know, he was sort of putting -- he -- you know, he knew they were offering one version of reality, he was offering another, and it was being recorded for the public record. And I think he had an active sense of wanting his side being heard, just like he had earlier in the newsletters.

And at the end he said, "Charles W. Lachenmeyer, PhD," sort of as a verbal signature. And I think that was an attempt to announce to the court his history, his record.

One of the -- as an aside, one of the sort of tragedies, one of the difficulties, I think, for the homeless mentally ill population is, not only is their present and future really at jeopardy, in disarray, but past accomplishments aren't recognized as they are for most people. You know, you can drift, but you can always lay claim, I guess, to what you've accomplished, or to your degrees. And the problem is, you know, because most of what my father said was delusional, people on the street assumed everything was. And I think when he got into that court, he -- it was sort of an act of defiance.

And from my perspective, an act of tremendous dignity.

GROSS: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer is the author of the new memoir "The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle With Madness." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. His new memoir, "The Outsider," is about his late father, a former sociology professor who became homeless after he was overcome by the symptoms of schizophrenia.

After your father was committed, he was placed on anti-psychotic medication. Now, this was during a period of his life shortly before his death, when you were not in touch. But during the course of your investigation of his life in his later years, you learned a lot about what happened to him. So what did you find out about the effect that the anti-psychotic medication had on his condition?

LACHENMEYER: His condition improved greatly. It depends on the drug, and different people respond to different medications differently. But the effect it had on him, I think, is not atypical, which is that his delusional system remained intact, and he may or may not have been hearing the voices. He did not gain insight into his disorder, and again he was part of this core group that really doesn't seem to be able to recognize that they're ill.

And the effect it had was, he still, you know, believed his delusional system, but it became less important to him. He wasn't fixated on it. He was able to have normal interaction with staff, with other patients. It sort of became, I think, more of a conventional belief system, like you or I may believe in different gods or what have you, religious or even cultic beliefs, but they don't impede our daily functioning. And I think that's what happened. From a functional perspective, he was much more able to interact, to survive, to...

And what happened, in terms of practical effects, he again turned attention -- he turned his attention for the first time in a while away from the focus on the conspiracy and began to think again about his earlier sociology and to try to do that.

One interesting thing that happened at that point that I think reflects now much his condition had improved was, there was a staff member, psychiatric aide, at Vermont State Hospital who was taking classes, graduate classes, in psychology. And he was able to help her rework a paper that she'd had trouble on so that the grade could go from an F to an A or something like that.

But, you know, basically he was able, at least in that limited context, to return to his former state as a professor.

GROSS: Would you say in retrospect that being committed helped him?

LACHENMEYER: If my father hadn't been committed in Vermont when he was, the consensus from the people I interviewed -- police, caseworkers, bartenders -- is that he would have died on the street. This was the winter of 1993, one of the hardest, most severe winters in Vermont history. And the consensus, time and time again people would say, You know, I thought we'd go out there and we'd find him glued to a park bench.

So I think -- he'd gone and -- he was six foot four, his weight went from 220 to 140, the lice, and he had frostbite when he was committed. The commitment process was an attempt to, really, on the part of the various mental health agencies and the police, and even people at the bank that had stopped collecting his check, was an attempt to save his life.

They arrested him on a panhandling charge, not because it had done anyone any great harm, but because it was the only way to get him before a court. Which speaks to the issue of criminalization among the mentally ill. I don't know if you want me to get into that or not.

GROSS: Yes, no, you -- I mean, you bring this up in your book, that you think that the difficulty now in committing somebody against their will has led to the criminalization of the mentally ill. So why don't you elaborate on that?

LACHENMEYER: What happened to my father in Vermont was at once a testament really to their -- the people in the community, their ability to care. I mean, they knew he was going to die on the street, so they did what they had to to get him committed, which -- the way things work at this point, it's much easier to commit someone through the criminal courts than through the civil courts.

So they arrested him for panhandling, he was judged incompetent and sent to the state hospital. The problem with this from sort of a broader perspective -- I mean, I'm incredibly grateful that they did that. But from a broader perspective, the problem with that is, it inflates the statistics of criminal behavior on the part of the mentally ill. In point of fact, he, like most homeless mentally ill, work extremely hard within their delusional system to -- from within their delusional system to not act out, to not become violent, and acts of violence, despite media attention given to them, are very rare.

GROSS: Your father basically died of a heart problem shortly after he was released from the institution. He was at that point, I think, still on his anti-psychotic medication and was able to be more functional, so instead of living on the street, he was living in a shabby apartment. His body was discovered, slightly decomposed, in this shabby apartment. It took a while before his body was discovered.

After his death, you kind of investigated his life, talked to the police who found him, talked to other -- you know, a local bartender, to neighborhood people who knew him as the local homeless guy. I'm wondering if you got a general sense of how he was seen by others, if he was seen as, you know, the local homeless guy who people had to look out for, the local homeless guy who was a threat and had to be kept at a distance, like, what were the perceptions of him?

LACHENMEYER: Different people responded to him differently, depending on the context in which they met him. There were many people -- and I don't really document this in the book -- who I -- I mean, treated him really very, very poorly, because it is so easy to remove yourself, it's so easy to look at the homeless mentally ill as a separate species because of their uniform and their strange behavior. You don't think it's -- very often, you don't think you have the same obligations you have to them that you might have to a stranger in a suit walking down the street going to work.

But this was one of the most -- the really personally gratifying things I discovered in the book was that there were many people -- a handful of people, which, given how limited his social contact really was, is many people -- there were many people who gave him things. And most importantly, gave him a sense that he was not living in another world.

There was a student who sat down next to him on a bench, and they sort of started up an interaction from time to time where they would -- the student would give him cigarettes, but the student would also sit and listen to him. There was a woman at one of those Subway delis who would let my father sit there, despite the odor, the lice, and would give him free coffee.

And you know, it's -- I mean, a lot of times what allowed these people to have their tolerance is something that perhaps -- maybe isn't so good. For example, the student, I think, made the mistake of romanticizing him and thinking of him as sort of a seer, that if you're crazy, you're also a genius. And I think he looked at it in sort of a literary perspective. But ultimately what he did was, he offered him something.

Probably the most moving thing for me, in terms of who interacted with him and who didn't when he was in Burlington on the street, was another homeless man who -- much higher functioning, not a victim of the same disorder -- who, you know, started telling me that my father would sit down next to him and begin ranting and raving about the CIA, talking in this sort of fast clip, and angrily.

And I asked him -- at one point it just occurred to me, why -- you know, he was clearly -- this homeless man was clearly sort of annoyed by my father and his presence, and yet would sit with him, you know, day after day. And I asked him why, Why did you sit with him? Why? Why didn't -- you know, why did you sit with him? And he said, you know, "There's times you need someone to talk to."

He knew, and he went on and he said that, you know, "I hope -- I think it made a difference. I could feel that even though what your father was saying didn't change, and the tone didn't change, and his comportment didn't change, that it had an effect." And he said, you know, "I... " he said, "I helped him, at least I think I helped him."

And I think that's telling.

GROSS: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. His new memoir is called "The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle With Madness."

Coming up, Stephen Greenberg talks with us about his father, baseball star Hank Greenberg, who's the subject of a new documentary.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer
High: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer has written the new book "The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father's Struggle with Madness." His father, Charles, was a professor of sociology who lived a normal suburban life with his family until the onset of schizophrenia. The disease destroyed his life. He lost his job, his family, and ended up homeless. Nathaniel corresponded with his father until it became too difficult to continue. After learning of his father's death in 1995, he decided to find out what happened to him.
Spec: Health and Medicine; Disabilities; Families

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer Discusses His Father's Struggle With Schizophrenia

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 14, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 031402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Stephen Greenberg Discusses His Father's Legacy
Sect: Sports
Time: 12:45

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIPS, "THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG")

BASEBALL ANNOUNCER: Two-time winner of the American League's most valuable player award, slugger Hank.

BASEBALL ANNOUNCER: (inaudible) into left field. (inaudible) for a base hit. It is a home run for Hank Greenberg!

(END AUDIO CLIPS)

GROSS: "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is a new documentary about America's first Jewish baseball star. Greenberg was chosen most valuable player in 1935 and 1954, and in 1938 was three home runs shy of breaking Babe Ruth's record.

Greenberg played first base and outfield for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to '46, and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in '47. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

My guest is one of his sons, Stephen Greenberg, who's featured in the new documentary. Stephen played five seasons in the minor leagues, then became a lawyer and sports agent and served three years as deputy baseball commissioner under Fay Vincent.

The new documentary focuses on the anti-Semitism Hank Greenberg faced early in his career, and what he hero he was to Jewish Americans. I asked Stephen Greenberg about the anti-Semitism his father contended with in his own ball club.

STEPHEN GREENBERG, SON OF HANK GREENBERG: Well, he had a couple of instances early in his career. And again, the times were so different, it's almost like might as well have been a different century compared to what I knew growing up.

But he had one teammate who, without any particular malice, came over and looked at him sort of curiously when they first met, and kept staring at him. And my dad said, "What's the problem?" He said, "Well, I heard that Jews had horns, and I don't see your horns. Where are they?" And this was a fellow who'd grown up in Alabama, and this was what he, growing up as a kid in the 1920s, was taught, that Jews had horns.

So those kinds of stereotypes, which seem absurd and ridiculous in the year 2000, existed then, and he had to deal with them.

GROSS: What about the fans? What did he face with the fans?

GREENBERG: Well, he eventually won them over, certainly in Detroit he won them over in a big way, because the great thing about sports is that -- and sports fans is that ultimately it's what you do on the field that counts. In opposing parks, however, he -- certainly during the 1930s had a difficult time. He constantly had a barrage of anti-Semitic slurs shouted at him from opposing dugouts and from opposing bleachers. And it just became, you know, something he dealt with literally every day in his life.

And in talking to him years later, he actually believed that it made him a better player. It was a spur, if you will, to keep him on his toes and make him do better on the field, because he was constantly being egged on, if you will, by the fans.

GROSS: Although he had to face a lot of discrimination within baseball and from the fans, he was also, like, an incredible hero to Jewish baseball fans. And I think that has to do in part with the fact -- I mean, not only was he the first great Jewish baseball player, but I think his presence was particularly meaningful for a lot of Jewish people because one of the stereotypes of Jews is that they aren't particularly physical, strong, or athletic.

GREENBERG: Oh, yes, I think that's absolutely true, Terry. One critic wrote -- and I think it's an interesting insight -- that prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, when Jews wanted to look for one of their own who did something heroic in a physical sense, it was Hank Greenberg. After the establishment of the state of Israel, of course, we have many examples in Israel, and, in fact, Israel itself almost becomes the symbol of Jewish physicality.

But certainly in the '30s and in the '40s, when my dad was playing, most Jews were not on the athletic field, and he was a tremendous hero in the Jewish community, and really well beyond that. The most stirring moment that I've had vis-a-vis my dad in my lifetime came in 1983, when his uniform was retired, his uniform number was retired in Detroit. And I went back with him, and there was a 55,000-fan capacity crowd at Tiger Stadium in between games of a double-header.

He was called onto the field and his number retired, and 55,000 fans stood up. And I guarantee you, most of these were not Jews. And most of them never saw him play. These were children and grandchildren of people who may have seen him play. And gave him about a three-minute standing ovation. And it was amazing to me how much he was remembered and how much his legend is still alive in the city of Detroit.

GROSS: Did he know Jackie Robinson, and did he relate to the threats and the slurs that Robinson faced when he integrated major league baseball?

GREENBERG: Absolutely. And it comes out in the film. One of the coincidences of his career is that at the end of 1946, my dad was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates after a long career in Detroit. He almost retired but decided to play that one year. And 1947, of course, was the year that Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers. So my dad saw, as a new National Leaguer, firsthand what Jackie was going through, and really did go out of his way, reached out to Jackie. Think Jackie acknowledged that Hank Greenberg was the first star player who reached out to him and encouraged him and gave him a big boost.

Certainly my dad recognized that much of what Jackie was going through was similar to what he had gone through, although he said to his dying day that he thought he had it tough till he saw what Jackie went through. And it was nothing compared to what Jackie went through.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Greenberg, a son of the legendary baseball player Hank Greenberg. And there's a new documentary about Hank Greenberg called "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

Did your father think of himself as religious? And did his sense of his own Jewish identity change when he faced so much discrimination?

GREENBERG: He had a very strong religious grounding and sense of himself as a Jew. He was raised Orthodox. However, he was not a religious person. He was not -- he didn't go to temple, and he was what I guess you would call a secular Jew today, but still one with a very, very strong Jewish identity, obviously never denied his Jewishness, and was very, very cognizant at an early age of the fact that he was a symbol to an entire community of Jews, and the importance of what that meant as a role model.

GROSS: There's a story that's told in the documentary about him, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," that I'm going to ask you to tell. This is the story of how he had to decide whether or not to play on the Jewish New Year, Rash Hashana, in a game in which the Tigers had the chance to win the pennant.

GREENBERG: Yes, it -- and what amazes me, Terry, about this story is that he was only 23 years old when this happened. And he had no agent. In those days, players didn't have agents and advisers. He had to deal with this really all on his own in a strange city with relatively few friends around. But the year was 1934, the Tigers were pushing for the pennant, fighting against the Yankees in the latter days of September.

And the Jewish holidays rolled around. Actually on Rash Hashana, the Jewish New Year, he sought help from the rabbis, the elders in the Jewish community in Detroit. And the chief rabbi of Detroit apparently found a piece of Scripture from the Talmud that said that on Rash Hashana, "The children played in the streets of Jerusalem," and literally cleared my father to play on Rash Hashana. He did play, hit two home runs, and the Tigers won the game 2 to 1.

The following week, however, was Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement and the holiest of holy days in the Jewish calendar. And there was no question that he wouldn't play that day. He didn't, he sat out, he went to synagogue, apparently walked in and received a standing ovation in the middle of the service in the Orthodox temple in Detroit, which is, let's say, not the usual custom. And the Tigers lost that day, but the good news is, they went on to win the pennant.

Out of that episode, I think, much of my father's legend has grown. He is remembered to this day as not having played on Yom Kippur, and it is amazing, it -- how many Yom Kippur sermons around the country, I hear, that to this day the rabbi will refer to the fact that Hank Greenberg didn't play baseball on Yom Kippur.

GROSS: You tell the story in your father's autobiography, which is written with the sports writer Ira Berkow (ph), about how once on Yom Kippur, he told all the kids, all of his kids, to take off from school, and he took you all to the planetarium, not to synagogue.

GREENBERG: He had the right idea, he just didn't -- couldn't do it in the traditional sense. He was -- as I said, he was not a traditional religious person. Ironically, he lived by the Ten Commandments. Those were his guiding principles. But he didn't believe that organized religion was for him.

Accordingly, you're absolutely right, when I was about 11 years old, one day we got up and Dad said, "You're not going to school today, boys, I'm taking you -- it's a special day, it's Yom Kippur, and Jews don't go to school and don't go to work on Yom Kippur. But get dressed, we're going somewhere."

So we got dressed, and he took us to the planetarium. We sat in the darkened planetarium looking up at the stars for about a half an hour, and then went home. And I thought it was great, and for some time thought that Yom Kippur was the day that the Jews went to the planetarium.

GROSS: (laughs) Yes. Did he play baseball with you when you were a kid?

GREENBERG: He played all sports with us, mostly tennis. When he gave up -- when he stopped playing baseball, he took up tennis with an absolute passion. He played every day, even into his '70s he was probably playing five days a week. He passed away when he was 75, prematurely from cancer, but up until the time he got sick, he was an avid tennis player. So when we grew up in Cleveland, he was getting into his tennis career, if you will. So he had us out on the tennis court hitting balls from the time we were 6.

And sure, he played some baseball with us, but never encouraged us to play organized baseball, rather just wanted us to play all sports and understand the value of physical exercise.

GROSS: Was it inhibiting to learn from a brilliant athlete who was your father?

GREENBERG: You know, it wasn't so much -- what it was, was intimidating. I mean, he was, first of all, a big guy, and we were little tykes then. And he was competitive. And if you -- the hardest thing for me, and I used to still get shivers in my 30s, was playing doubles with him, having him as my partner, and having him glare at me when I missed an easy shot. Boy, that was withering.

He was a very competitive guy, and yet a very loving father. And I think we became, my brother and I, very good athletes in part because we understood the value of hard work, and we didn't want that glare if we made a mistake.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Greenberg. His father, baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, is the subject of a new documentary. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Greenberg. He's featured in the new documentary about his father, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

Stephen Greenberg, you played baseball professionally for a while. You were in the minor leagues for about five years.

GREENBERG: Right.

GROSS: Did your father want you to be a major league player, or did he try to discourage you from that life?

GREENBERG: I think he was very proud. He never pushed me in that direction. It became apparent when I was in college, though, that I had a little bit of talent, and I really liked it, and I made the decision, having never played Little League or any organized baseball as a kid, to play in the summer league during college, a college league, for sort of top college players that they have up on Cape Cod, still have it up there in the summer.

And I think he was very proud. I was drafted by the Washington Senators and signed a contract with them. He never came around much. He would come probably once a season in my five minor league seasons, and come and stay wherever I was playing for two or three days and watch a few games.

But he didn't want to be in the way. He understood that when he showed up at a minor league ball park in Geneva, New York, or Spokane, Washington, that suddenly all the press was out and the cameras, and it put pressure on me, which it did.

So he didn't want that, and he didn't need to be in the limelight. So he watched it from afar. I think he was proud, I think he was glad I gave it a shot. He would have loved it had I made it to the big leagues, but he certainly didn't pressure me.

GROSS: Did you feel bad that you couldn't fill your father's shoes in baseball?

GREENBERG: Well, I wasn't stupid enough to ever think I could fill his shoes. I did read the record books, and I realized that I was not going to be hitting 58 home runs and doing what he did on the field. I thought I had a chance to be a journeyman major league player, and when it panned out that I was going to be a journeyman AAA player, I went back to law school and never regretted it.

GROSS: You went to law school and ended up representing players.

GREENBERG: I did.

GROSS: Was your approach toward salary negotiation, and how much is a fair amount for a baseball player to earn, was that at all affected by your father's achievements and his attitude toward salary?

GREENBERG: Well, he was a tough negotiator on his own behalf. I would have loved to have had a player with his statistics to argue on behalf of, because it would have been pretty easy pickings in this environment today. I remember one conversation I had with him. I had a young player who was a good little player, second baseman. He'd hit about .246 the year before.

So I was talking to my dad about what I would ask for in terms of a raise the next year. He said, "Well, what did he hit?" I said, "He hit .246." He said, "You're going to ask for a raise with .246? You should just ask for a uniform."

GROSS: (laughs)

GREENBERG: It didn't make sense to him the way salaries have exploded in light of the level of performance that he was seeing. He had no qualms about the great players, the star players, making huge money. What he didn't really understand is how the journeyman players, or the mediocre players, could be getting these huge million-dollar salaries. And that's just, I think, the transition of baseball from a game, a pastime, to part of the entertainment industry.

GROSS: Well, I figure also your father's attitude toward salaries probably changed when he started working in the front office as opposed to being a player.

GREENBERG: Yes, I would have hated to have had to go in as a player, one on one, and negotiate with Hank Greenberg, the general manager. In fact, Al Rosen told -- great third baseman for the Cleveland Indians, also Jewish, by coincidence, so sort of a protege of my dad when my dad was the general manager in Cleveland, Rosen told me that one time he went into negotiate with my dad, and my dad sat down and said, "Well, Al, let me look at your statistics. Now, this was your third year. You hit .321. In my third year, I hit .340. You had 27 home runs. In my third year, I had 44 home runs."

And he went down the list. And Rosen, who had had a very good year, said he left the room feeling like he'd had a terrible year, because all my dad could do was compare him to his own accomplishments.

So I think he was probably a tough negotiator as a front office executive.

GROSS: In your years as an agent and in your years from '90 to '93 as deputy commissioner of baseball, did you know a lot of players who revered your father, or did you find that a lot of players didn't have much of a sense of baseball history?

GREENBERG: Not enough have a sense of baseball history. On the other hand, there were a couple of instances, one in particular I remember, when David Winfield, great player, future Hall of Famer, I think, at the time was coming back from a very difficult back surgery. He'd been out an entire season, had disc surgery and was trying to make a comeback. His agent had given him a copy of my dad's book, which he read while he was recuperating.

And I remember seeing Dave out at Yankee Stadium one day, and he took me aside. He said, "You know, I'm trying to come back this year, and your dad's somewhat of an inspiration to me. I never met him," he said, "but I read in his book that he missed four and a half seasons during World War II, didn't pick up a bat for four and a half years, and came back after a four-and-a-half-year layoff and led the team to the pennant in 1945. So if he can do that, then I think maybe I can come back after one year off."

So you do get that kind of a story occasionally. And, of course, anyone who ever met my dad loved him. The ball players that I represented, I would always bring around to the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, which was my dad's hangout, and we would have lunch together. And anyone who ever met him and had a chance to talk baseball with him would always ask me about him.

GROSS: Well, Stephen Greenberg, I thank you very much for talking with us.

GREENBERG: I appreciate it. My pleasure.

GROSS: Stephen Greenberg is featured in the new documentary about his father, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." It's now playing in New York and Boston, opens in Baltimore this weekend and in Detroit at the end of the month. It's also playing at several Jewish film festivals.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Stephen Greenberg
High: Attorney and former Deputy Commissioner of Baseball Stephen Greenberg discusses his father, legendary baseball player Hank Greenberg, who faced bigotry in the 1930s and '40s as America's first Jewish baseball star. Greenberg played first base and outfield for the Detroit Tigers from 1933-46 and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. He helped the Tigers win the pennant four times. There's a new documentary about him, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."
Spec: Sports; Religion; Discrimination

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Stephen Greenberg Discusses His Father's Legacy
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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