Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2001
DATE May 4, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ruth Reichl talks about her new book, "Comfort me with
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When Ruth Reichl was restaurant critic for The New York Times, she wanted to
dine out incognito, so she used an alias and often wore a wig and phony
glasses. But she's opening her life to readers in her memoirs. Reichl, who
is now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, has written the second volume of
her memoirs. It's called "Comfort me with Apples," and it's about her
adventures with food, friendship and love. It's a follow-up to her first
memoir, the best seller, "Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table." I
spoke with her in 1998, after "Tender at the Bone" was published, shortly
before she left The Times.
You might think Ruth Reichl's love of food dates back to her mother's
wonderful home cooking, but you'd be wrong. Her mother was not only a
terrible cook, she was what Reichl describes as taste blind. Her mother
couldn't tell if food was spoiled, would sometimes serve it that way after it
had turned and have no idea why her family found it nauseating.
I asked Reichl how she became a food professional, coming from this
Ms. RUTH REICHL (Editor In Chief, Gourmet Magazine): Well, you know, I mean,
I really felt that I was sort of shaped by my mother's handicap. You know, I
mean, it's the way the children of deaf people are probably more aware of
sound. I became very aware of taste because I was so fascinated by the fact
that my mother couldn't taste these things. And then, in self defense, I
And my mother really would make these dreadful concoctions. I mean, she
really prided herself on something called Everything Stew, where she would
take everything in the refrigerator, all the leftovers, and put them all
together. And one day I was watching her put in leftover turkey and broccoli
and a little, you know, can of mushroom soup. And she's throwing things in,
and half an apple pie goes in. You know, I sort of looked at her and said,
`Mom!' And she said, `Oh, it'll be fine.' And then she starts throwing
everything in. And, you know, in defense, I started cooking 'cause I didn't
want to eat that.
GROSS: Now I know your first experiences in the food world as a professional
was working in restaurants. One of the restaurants you worked in was Les
Cargot(ph). Would you describe the restaurant?
Ms. REICHL: Well, this was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was going to school at
the University of Michigan. And it was a very, very fancy French restaurant
for the mid '60s, and certainly for Ann Arbor, Michigan, and certainly for a
college town. And it was somebody's dream. I mean, I had the great
privilege, really, of participating in this mad, passionate dream of the
owner, who did everything beautifully, which you can't do in a restaurant. I
mean, he bought Baccarat crystal, which is insane. I mean, it all breaks in
the first month. And Limoge china and wonderful chandeliers. And he brought
a chef from the Four Seasons in New York and he got the best grill man as a
sous chef, and wonderful, wonderful waiters and waitresses, real
professionals, I mean, the kind of people that you don't see very much
anymore, who were very proud of their profession and very good at it.
And I've always thought that a really good restaurant, when it runs well, is
like being on a movie set. You become a family. It becomes a whole life of
its own. And this restaurant was like that. We became very tight. And as we
watched this restaurant go down...
GROSS: Go down?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I mean, it was a dream. Ann Arbor was not a place that
could support that kind of a restaurant, in those days. I mean, it was very
high-end French food at very high-end prices. And people would come once for
the curiosity but never come again. And as business really faded, we all
pulled together. We really rooted for him. I mean, what happened was the
first chef was a real thief, and I learned a lot about how, you know, most
restaurants go under because of employee theft, or many of them do. And this
guy was a real pro. I mean, he would take whole sides of meat, wrap them in
aluminum foil, bury them in the garbage and then go out after the garbage had
been taken out and he would come back in the middle of the night and take
these pieces of meat and sell them.
Ms. REICHL: And we all really started rooting for the owner. I mean, nobody
wanted to see this going on. And it was no good. I mean, ultimately it
GROSS: There was a waiter at this restaurant who kind of initiated you...
Ms. REICHL: Yes.
GROSS: ...in the ways of restaurants. And he told you that the restaurant
was a war zone. What did he mean by that?
Ms. REICHL: Well, it's a common thing that waiters say. I mean, what he
said was that the kitchen was at war with the customers and we were the
go-betweens, and that our job was to make sure that the customers never knew
that the kitchen was at war with them. And this entailed a lot of subterfuge.
For instance, if a customer wanted to send a steak back because it was cooked
too much, he said, `Now you can go back and you can tell the chef that the
customer says it's overcooked, and he's gonna scream and yell 'cause he's at
war with the customer. On the other hand, if you go back and you're very
humble and you say, "I made a terrible mistake; he said that he wanted it
rare, but I wrote down well-done," he'll scream at you, but he'll give you a
new steak because he's not at war with you.'
GROSS: Yeah, but he might be at war with you if that happens too much.
Ms. REICHL: Well, it doesn't happen that often. But it was just a matter of
us sort of always taking the blame so that we would get big tips. He also,
you know, really felt that it was our responsibility to come up with a good
story for the customers. He said, you know, `They should go home with more
than a good meal. You have to provide an experience for them that, you know,
they can talk about.' So he encouraged me to pretend that I was a foreign
student who was here and had not had enough money and that I needed to work to
support myself. And I developed a great story. I mean, my customers would be
crying and giving me big tips at the end of it. But he said that this was a
good thing because I was really giving them value for their money.
GROSS: Now at The New York Times, you're kind of famous for using disguises
when you're reviewing a restaurant so that you can't be spotted, so you can
eat anonymously. What do you use? Wigs?
Ms. REICHL: Not only wigs. I keep buying new wigs; I've now got 11. And I
do use those. I also have a lot of glasses. I have fake fingernails. I have
whole outfits in different sizes. I mean, I'll sometimes put on, like, three
pairs of pants, one over the other, or, you know, three skirts so I look much
larger than I am. I'm not normally a makeup person, but I've learned about
makeup, and you can really do amazing things. You can change the shape of
your lips and, you know, change the color of your eyebrows. And I do all that
GROSS: Do you pay cash or use fake credit cards?
Ms. REICHL: I use fake credit cards, which...
GROSS: Does The Times help you get them?
Ms. REICHL: No, I have figured out my own strategies for getting them. They
don't want to know about how I do this. I also often ask the people I'm with
to pay, and then I just write them a check.
GROSS: Right, right, right.
Ms. REICHL: I mean, but if you start pulling out wads of cash, you know, it's
a giveaway. I mean, go out to a really expensive restaurant and pull out $500
in cash. Who carries that kind of money around?
GROSS: Something you did that was pretty controversial, I think, I don't
remember when this was exactly, but you took a star away from the restaurant
Le Cirque, which I guess had been--what?--four stars, and you demoted it to
three? Do I have that right?
Ms. REICHL: Yes, you have it right.
GROSS: I don't even know how the star...
Ms. REICHL: And it was right after I came.
GROSS: It was right after you came?
Ms. REICHL: Yeah.
GROSS: I don't even know how the star rating works and who determines what
makes a restaurant four or three stars or whatever. So why don't we start
with an explanation of that?
Ms. REICHL: Well, the star system is very much up to whoever the critic is at
the time. And four stars is the most that you can get, and it's very exalted.
There are only six four-star restaurants at the moment, and it's a very big
deal for restaurants to be...
GROSS: When you say four-star restaurant, this is like a New York Times
Ms. REICHL: Yes.
Ms. REICHL: Yes. And it has a lot of weight to the restaurant's--when the
get a four-star rating, it's a very big deal for them, and it brings them lots
and lots and lots of business. To demote a restaurant from three stars to two
stars is not such a big deal, but to demote it from four stars to three stars
is huge. This was right after I had arrived in New York, five years ago. I
had not had a star rating system at the LA Times, where I'd been for 10 years.
I wasn't that impressed with the star system at the time. I mean, I've since
come to see, if nothing else, how economically powerful it is for the
But I started going to Le Cirque, and they didn't know me, and I was not
treated well. And everybody had always, you know, jumped up and down about
what a great restaurant it was, and, you know, I had some really terrible
experiences there. You know, I went once with another woman and we were made
to wait 45 minutes at the bar for, you know, a supposedly non-smoking table,
and we were still stuck in the smoking section. And when I asked for a wine
list, a maitre d' came over and snatched it out of my hands after a minute and
said, `I need that list,' and he took it off to some man nearby, and I
couldn't get it back.
And then I thought, after I'd been there a few times, `Well, I wonder what
will happen, not if I make a reservation in my own name, but just if I go in
undisguised. By then I knew he knew who I was. And sure enough, I go and the
only reservation I could get was, like, 9:45, but I said, `I think I'll go at
9:00 and just see what happens.' And we get to the door and there's a huge
crowd waiting for tables. And the owner comes. He parts this crowd. It's
like the Red Sea parting. And he comes through to me, and he pulls me forward
and says, `The king of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready,'
and leads me to a table. And I thought, you know, this is too wonderful.
I've just got to write about, you know, what happened to me as just me, an
ordinary person, and then what happened to me as the restaurant critic of The
New York Times and write about the two experiences.
GROSS: Now I could see a restaurant easily explaining this by saying, `Well,
of course, we treat our regulars with special care. That's why people become
regulars because they know they're treated as like part of the family. We
know what they like to eat. We know what their preferences are. We know
whether they smoke or not.' And it's lovely, like, at a neighborhood
restaurant when you come in all the time. They say `Hello.' They bring you
the salad when you sit down. They know what you want. Everybody likes to be
treated like a regular.
Ms. REICHL: Absolutely. And regulars deserve--I mean, they've paid their
dues and they deserve to be treated better. On the other hand, that doesn't
mean that ordinary people shouldn't be treated well.
Ms. REICHL: And there's a real difference between--for instance, not every
restaurant can have your table ready when you arrive. I mean, they just can't
always calculate how long people are going to stay at a table. An apology
goes a long way. If they come up to you and say, `I'm so sorry. Can I give
you a glass of wine? Can I somehow make this up to you?,' you don't feel
badly, you don't feel as if you've been dissed. On the other hand, if it's
just, you know, `Go wait over there. We'll let you know when your table is
ready,' it's a matter of attitude. And Le Cirque, at that time, was really
known for not being particularly nice to ordinary people. I have to say that
their attitude has changed dramatically.
GROSS: Well, have you changed their star rating?
Ms. REICHL: I have. I mean, they reopened. They closed for a while and they
reopened in a new location. And I went in many times in many disguises and
they were wonderful. They were just wonderful. And I really felt that they
had sort of seen that there was no point in not trying to be good to everyone.
GROSS: My guest, Ruth Reichl, is editor in chief of Gourmet magazine and
former restaurant critic for The New York Times. She's just published her
second food memoir. More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Ruth Reichl. Her new food memoir
is called "Comfort me with Apples." When we spoke in 1998, she was restaurant
critic for The New York Times.
Now what's your approach to reviewing? How many times do you typically go to
a restaurant? How do you order off the menu?
Ms. REICHL: I go endlessly. I mean, I go until I really feel that I've eaten
just about everything on the menu, that I've been there with a big group and a
small group, on a weekend, on a weeknight, lunch and dinner, I've had every
kind of, you know, combination that you can have. I mean, I'm very lucky. I
work for an institution that is willing to put this kind of money into it. I
would never go fewer than three times. I've gone as many as nine. And I
really do try and, you know, get the entire range of experiences that you can
have from a restaurant.
GROSS: What kind of impact have you seen your reviews have, for better and
worse, on restaurants?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I felt very good about the Le Cirque thing. I mean, I
really felt that that had had an impact, that taking that star away, which
really stung. I mean, it's a wonderful restaurant. The food is terrific.
But I think he really thought, you know, times are changing. I think I've
seen that women are treated better. I don't think that's just up to me. But
I'm thinking it's also changing times. Women are spending more money.
There are more business women. The whole sort of cliche about women not
tipping so well is not true anymore. But I've certainly seen that change in
the last few years. You know, I don't tend to go back to restaurants much
after I've been there, so it's not that I, you know, can see the impact.
Ms. REICHL: But I've certainly read, you know, restaurants saying, you know,
they got four stars and, you know, they got 20,000 phone calls the next day.
GROSS: I want to ask you a little bit about restaurant etiquette. What
advice do you have about how much to tip? And when do you think it's
appropriate, if ever, to penalize a waiter, if the service isn't good or if
the food is bad?
Ms. REICHL: Well, if the food is bad, you can't penalize the waiter. That's
actually not fair. It's not his fault.
Ms. REICHL: Now, remember, when you're listening to this answer, that I am a
former waitress for a very long time. I'm a very good tipper. You know, I
think that you can make someone's day much, much brighter by tipping well.
And another couple dollars isn't going to make that much difference to you.
And it's certainly OK to penalize a waiter for things that you know are his
fault. I would penalize a waiter for, you know, not being helpful, for things
that he said, for demeanor. I would not penalize him for food appearing or
not appearing on time.
GROSS: When do you think it's OK to send back a dish?
Ms. REICHL: It's always OK to send back a dish. You're there to be pleased.
I mean, this is your night out. You're paying to get what you want. And, I
mean, as a restaurant critic I never send food back because I don't want to
draw attention to myself. But as a civilian, I feel like I am in the
restaurant to be pleased, and if it's not what I wanted, I send it back.
GROSS: From your years as a waitress, what are some of the things that
patrons at restaurants do that you know drive the staff crazy?
Ms. REICHL: Oh, there are so many things that drive the staff crazy. You
know, one of the biggest ones is people who want to change everything on the
menu. You know, `I want this, but I don't want this sauce and I don't want
this vegetable.' And you've got to go back to the kitchen and say to the
chef, `You know, that woman out there'--the chef is gonna scream at you. It's
really awful. The other thing is that people can be unbelievably rude to
waiters and waitresses. There's a whole attitude of respect that you deserve
as a waiter, and if you don't get it, it's very annoying and a patron does
that at his peril, I think.
GROSS: Did you eat out a lot as a kid?
Ms. REICHL: Yes. My parents were older when I was born. My dad was 50; my
mother was 40. And they had a life, and they sort of expected me to fit into
their life, and also because my mother was not the world's greatest cook, we,
fortunately, went out a lot. And we lived in New York, and my mother, she
used restaurants in a great way. Even though she was taste blind, and she
really wasn't interested in food, she was very interested in the theater of
restaurants. So I grew up in the great days of restaurant associates, when
they were doing the form with the Twelve Caesars and La Fonda del Sol and all
these really exciting theatrical restaurants. And we didn't have a lot of
money, so we wouldn't go eat in those restaurants, but we would go and have a
drink and sit in the bar and look at the restaurant. And then we would go
someplace cheap for dinner.
GROSS: You know, in talking about how your mother liked the theater of
restaurants, you like to write about the kind of subculture within the
restaurant. For example, a recent review, you wrote, `If you are over 30,
weigh more than 105 pounds, favor bright colors or bite your fingernails, Bond
Street could do you damage. No matter how confident you may be in the real
world, it's hard to face an entire universe of thin, young, beautiful people
dressed in black without wondering what you're doing there.' I mean, do you
enjoy writing about the subculture that a restaurant seems to attract?
Ms. REICHL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think you need to know that. I mean,
people say, `Well, how's the food?' And that's only a piece of it.
Ms. REICHL: I mean, if you're walking into a restaurant, you want to know
what the people are wearing, what they look like, how you're gonna feel when
you're there. And if you're walking into a really hip scene dressed like
Grandma Moses, you're gonna feel ridiculous. I love that whole side of
restaurants, that whole ability you have to walk in and be somebody else for
the time that you're there. You know, it's like meeting new people. You get
to reinvent yourself. And that's one thing that restaurants do for us.
GROSS: Well, Ruth Reichl, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Ms. REICHL: Thank you.
GROSS: Are you off to go to a restaurant now?
Ms. REICHL: Yes, of course.
GROSS: Well, enjoy.
Ms. REICHL: Thank you.
GROSS: Ruth Reichl, recorded in 1998, when she was restaurant critic for The
New York Times. She's now editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. Her new
memoir, "Comfort me with Apples," is a follow-up to her best-seller, "Tender
at the Bone."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) We got fish for supper. We got fish for supper.
We got fish for supper. First one thing, then another. We ain't got no menu,
but our fish we'll send you. We got fish for supper. First one thing, then
another. Last night, we had bread and fish, tonight we got fish and bread.
Tomorrow night we gonna change that fish and have plain fish instead. We got
fish for supper.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Andrew Dominick's movie "Chopper"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Convicted killer Mark "Chopper" Reed became a celebrity in his native
Australia with two best-sellers and frequent TV appearances in which he
detailed his life in crime. Over the years, he's been suspected of
embellishing his resume. He boasts of committing 19 murders, but he's been
convicted of only one. The Australian movie "Chopper" examines Chopper Reed's
life of crime and fame. Film critic Henry Sheehan has a review.
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
There are an awful lot of brawls going on in "Chopper," which isn't a
surprise, considering the film's hero. Mark "Chopper" Reed is an ex-convict
and violent offender, a killer really, whose best-selling accounts of his
career and frequent television appearances have made him a national celebrity
"Chopper," the film, is director Andrew Dominik's account of Reed's life, from
his incarceration in the mid-1970s through a mini-crime spree he pulled off in
the 1980s, a spree that exclusively victimized other low-level criminals.
But those aren't the main bouts in the movie. For the headliner in one
corner, armed with a savvy nose for notoriety, we have the champion
self-promoter, Chopper Reed, played by Australian stand-up comedian and TV
star Eric Bana. For the challenger, we have first-time filmmaker Dominik, a
man who would very much like to knock the wind out of Chopper a few times, if
not silence him completely.
Dominik portrays Chopper as a weirdly conflicted man who seems on the edge of
psychosis, but is not quite there yet. After a barbarous assault on a fellow
prisoner that leaves him bleeding profusely on the floor, a sorrowful Chopper
offers apologies, then starts kidding around about how much fun he and the
wounded man will have after he gets better.
Dominik finds Chopper's bizarre sense of guilt more interesting than his
crimes. But it's his flare for celebrity that really takes center stage.
Chopper is constantly talking himself up to anyone who will listen. When he
finally gets out of prison after serving 10 years for attempting to kidnap a
judge, he decides he's now going to live the life of a legendary figure, a
kind of brass-knuckle Robin Hood.
Chopper has alienated so many criminal associates, that he decides to be the
scourge of the underworld, an undercover hit man for the police. Here, he
makes an offer to a couple of Melbourne detectives who want nothing to do with
(Soundbite from "Chopper")
Mr. ERIC BANA: (As Mark "Chopper" Reed) I'm a bloody disappointment to you,
Unidentified Man #1: What?
Mr. BANA: Well, you probably read all them newspaper stories about me, and
you've heard the word on the street about me and you've got a picture in your
head of what bloody Chopper Reed's like. And we're sitting here at this bar,
all very nice and cozy, and I'm a bit of a bloody letdown to you.
Unidentified Man #2: What are you on about, man?
Mr. BANA: I feel like I should be doing more for you, Mr. Deanni(ph), to be
honest. You know, these crims out here, they get round like a bloody
protected species you know? Why? I mean, look, I know you blokes don't mind
turning the occasional blind eye whilst I deal out my own bit of poetic
Unidentified Man #2: Actually, mate, that's not the way we operate.
Mr. BANA: I understand perfectly, Mr. Deanni. There are certain things
that you can't appear to condone.
Unidentified Man #2: Look, appearance has got nothing to do with it. We
don't condone it.
SHEEHAN: Scenes like this are clearly meant to expose Chopper's penchant for
self-deception, but the self-promoting convict gets his own back in a strange
way. Eric Bana, who plays Chopper, an actor virtually unknown outside of
Australia, gives an absolutely startling, remarkably charismatic performance.
He dominates each scene he's in, simply by being there. Bana has caught the
killer's strange blend of megalomania and remorseful sanity perfectly and
subtly. All he needs to do is shift his gaze and force a sheepish grin, and
he shows us an internal struggle of remarkable complexity.
In Australia, though, Bana is a star. Casting him as a killer is similar to,
say, hiring Steve Martin to play John Gotti. An American audience would know
simply from Martin's presence that a satirical or at least comic point was
being made. But "Chopper," which was a big hit in its homeland, loses that
pop culture context abroad. We haven't read Chopper's best-sellers, either,
though at least one is now available in paperback. We don't know whether
Chopper is overexposed or that Bana is a primarily a funny man. All we can
see is this wild man of Australia, repulsive, yet charismatic and almost
Whatever points Dominik scored with Australian audiences, "Chopper" wins by a
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
The documentary "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is currently showing on
Cinemax. Coming up, we hear from the Baseball Hall of Famer's son, Stephen
Greenberg. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Stephen Greenberg discusses his father, Hank Greenberg,
the first Jewish major league baseball player
TERRY GROSS, host:
"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is a documentary about America's first
Jewish baseball star. It's showing this month on Cinemax. Hank Greenberg was
chosen Most Valuable Player in 1935 and 1940. And in 1938 was three home runs
shy of breaking Babe Ruth's record. He played first base and outfield for the
Detroit Tigers from 1933 to '46 and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. He
was voted into the Hall of Fame in '56.
Last year, when the documentary opened theatrically, I spoke with one of his
sons, Stephen Greenberg, who's interviewed in the film. 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 documentary focuses on the anti-Semitism Hank Greenberg faced early in his
career and what a hero he was to Jewish Americans. I asked Stephen Greenberg
about the anti-Semitism his father contended with in his own ball club.
Mr. STEPHEN GREENBERG: Well, he had a couple of instances early in his
career. And again, the times were so different. It's almost like it 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
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.
Mr. GREENBERG: Oh, yeah, 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 on 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?
Mr. 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. I 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: Did your father think of himself as religious, and did his sense of
his own Jewish identity change when he faced so much discrimination?
Mr. 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,
Rosh Hashanah, in a game in which the Tigers had the chance to win the pennant.
Mr. GREENBERG: Yes. 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 Rosh Hashanah, 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 in the Talmud that said
that on Rosh Hashanah, the children played in the streets of Jerusalem, and
literally cleared my father to play on Rosh Hashanah. He did play, hit two
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
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
GROSS: You tell a story in your father's autobiography, which was written
with the sports writer Ira Berkow, 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.
Mr. GREENBERG: He had the right idea; he just didn't--couldn't do it in the
traditional sense. He wasn't--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: Yeah. Did he play baseball with you when you were a kid?
Mr. GREENBERG: He played all sports with us. Mostly tennis. When he gave
up--when he stopped playing baseball, he took up tennis with an absolutely
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, 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 six.
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
Mr. 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 and 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
GROSS: Stephen Greenberg, you played baseball professionally for a while.
You were in the minor leagues for about five years.
Mr. GREENBERG: Right.
GROSS: Did your father want you to be a major league player, or did he try to
discourage you from that life?
Mr. 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 the top college
players that they have up in 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 ballpark 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
Mr. 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
GROSS: You went to law school and ended up representing players.
Mr. GREENBERG: I did.
GROSS: Was your approach towards salary negotiation and how much is a fair
amount for a baseball player to earn--was that all affected by your father's
achievements and his attitude towards salary?
Mr. 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, a second baseman. He 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.' It didn't make sense to him the way salaries had 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
GROSS: Well, Stephen Greenberg, I thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. GREENBERG: I appreciate it. My pleasure.
GROSS: Stephen Greenberg is featured in the documentary about his father,
"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." It's showing this month on Cinemax.
Our interview was recorded last year.
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews last night's concluding episode of
"Survivor." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: David Bianculli reviews the last episode in the second
season of "Survivor"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The second season of the CBS series "Survivor" ended last night. TV critic
David Bianculli weighs in on the results, the final show, the series in
general and its future.
(Soundbite of "Survivor")
Mr. JEFF PROBST: Doesn't get any better than this. Three votes, Tina.
Ms. TINA WESSON: Oh!
Mr. PROBST: Three votes, Colby. In true "Survivor" tradition, it comes down
to one final vote.
Ms. WESSON: Oh, my God.
Mr. COLBY DONALDSON: Oh, my...
Mr. PROBST: The winner of "Survivor: The Australian Outback"...
Ms. WESSON: Oh!
(Soundbite of cheers)
Mr. DONALDSON: Yeah! Come here! Whoo! Yeah!
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
Even for someone who's a big fan of "Survivor"--and I am--last night's finale
had a lot of flaws. The two-hour episode was stretched thinner than a piece
of worn taffy, with only one sequence of actual suspense per hour. There was
the immunity challenge, which protected the winner from being voted off in the
first hour, and the jury presentation and vote in the second. Whole chunks of
last night's "Survivor: The Australian Outback" just sort of moped along like
they were in slow motion. And they were.
Also, the whole idea of putting the final vote on ice for a few months and
returning from the Outback to crown the winner live on TV last night was
clunky. It solved one problem, because the "Survivor" folks didn't have to
sweat out keeping the secret this time around, but it created another problem
because Tina wore makeup and Colby didn't have a beard. The immediacy of that
contest and the win had been removed. So those are the complaints about last
But you know what? Overall, it still worked because, like the first series,
which ended with scheming Richard as the Machiavellian winner, "Survivor" was
a TV mystery that kept on entertaining. Last summer, "Survivor" took its
players and viewers a while to figure out. This time, everyone was much more
savvy. We all knew that alliances would form quickly and immunity challenges
would be crucial. Yet there were surprises along the way. Mike fell
face-first into that campfire and essentially shifted the balance of power to
the competing tribe. Jerri got voted off early and emerged as the TV villain
you most love to hate since the glory greedy days of J.R. Ewing. And last
night, it was a surprise when Colby, after winning immunity, voted off Keith
instead of the more likeable and formidable Tina.
It wasn't that Colby, who had played the game very shrewdly up to that point,
was unaware that he'd stand a better chance of winning if Keith was his final
rival. He even said as much the morning after making his decision.
(Soundbite from "Survivor: The Australian Outback")
Mr. DONALDSON: I've been selfish in the way I've played. However, I'm
choosing to do into the finals with Tina, and that's not a selfish move.
Because if I was 100 percent selfish, I would choose to go in with Keith. I
feel certain I probably could have won against Keith. I don't even know that
I have a 50:50 shot against Tina.
BIANCULLI: In the end, Colby was right. He lost. But there was something a
little noble, as well as a little short-sighted, about that surprise decision.
And the vote itself from the former contestants Colby and Tina faced as
jurors, was a 4-3 decision, just like last summer's final tally. For the
second "Survivor" in a row, it all came down to one vote. Not even the
presidential race in Florida got that close.
The next "Survivor," we learned last night, will be in Africa. Let's hope CBS
goes a little lighter on the product placement next time and tightens up the
pace of the final hours. Otherwise, there's nothing here that's broken and
nothing else to fix. Unlike most of its reality show copycats, "Survivor" is
watchable, as well as a winning formula.
If "Survivor" is cast well before it begins and packaged well for television
after its contests are held, the show literally writes itself. And with the
threat of a writers strike still looming today, that may be the most valuable
"Survivor" prize of all.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News.
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Profile: Billy Higgins, jazz drummer, dies at the age of 64
TERRY GROSS, host:
The great jazz drummer Billy Higgins died of kidney and liver failure
yesterday. He was 64. In today's New York Times obituary, Ben Ratliffe
writes, `Since the late '50s, when he made a name for himself by playing on
Ornette Coleman's early recordings, Higgins was one of those musically
sensitive jazz players around. His style did not call attention to itself.
His musicianship simply raised the standard of playing of every band he played
Higgins recorded with Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins,
David Murray and Jackie McLean. Earlier this year, I asked Jackie McLean
about playing with Higgins.
Now what makes his drumming so special for you?
Mr. JACKIE McLEAN: His concept of time and his talent for listening. I mean,
he's a marvelous accompanist. He hears everything a musician plays and
responds to it quietly, without being overbearing or getting in the way. And
he's got a beat that is just the happiest thing on Earth. You know, his beat
is just incredibly marvelous. I mean, I can be depressed and feel like the
weight of the world is on my shoulders, and once I step up on the stage with
Billy Higgins and look back there and see him playing, I'm in good shape
because he's got such a marvelous feel.
GROSS: We'll close today's show with Billy Higgins, as featured on the
classic 1963 Lee Morgan recording "The Sidewinder."
(Soundbite of "The Sidewinder")
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.