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The Life and Times
of Hank Greenberg

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 11 February 2000

Written and Directed by Aviva Kempner

Growing up in suburban New York City in a conservative Jewish environment, my personal sports hero was three-time Cy Young winner Sandy Koufax, the Jewish southpaw for the L.A. Dodgers. I had forgiven my favorite baseball team from stealing away from Brooklyn, and as a teenager had stuffed several spiral scrapbooks with hundreds of newspaper headlines and magazine clippings of this strike-out king as he pitched his team to world championships in the 1960s. Aviva Kempner, an award-winning documentary filmmaker born in Berlin and raised in Detroit, but now based out of a modest townhouse in Northwest Washington, DC (her film’s one-sheet gloriously tacked to the front door greets visitors), has that same lifelong infatuation for Bronx-born slugger Hank Greenberg, the powerhouse cornerstone of Michigan’s Tigers for more than a decade starting back in 1933. But instead of rubber glue and newsprint, Kempner has used film cement, interviews, stock footage clips, and snippets of novelty music to fashion a marvelous pastiche of a legendary sports hero, a compelling and fascinating tribute to one of baseball’s great figures, in size (six feet four) and accomplishment. A pretty much homemade project that took thirteen years to assemble, the film’s bar mitzvah is a posthumous gift to the filmmaker’s late father, a Tigers fan and avid follower of Greenberg’s exploits, not the least of which was hitting fifty-eight home runs in 1938, a scant three away from breaking Babe Ruth’s then immortal record.

Kempner’s affection-filled effort to document the future Hall of Famer’s growing popularity amidst a solid Midwestern anti-Semitic ethic (in part due to the insidious likes of Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin) highlights the slugger’s hard-nosed efforts to rise above the small minds that sat in the stands and the dugouts, often shouting bigoted invectives against baseball’s first Jewish sports legend. While other Jews had played in the majors, Greenberg, a decent soul in search of acceptance in an assimilated society, was the first of his religion to stand up and be counted. It helped that Hammerin’ Hank had the patience of Moses and enough dignity (and a huge, lumbering frame) to face down his worst detractors.

Greenberg was an inspiration to Jews and Americans in search of a honest, hard-working hunk of a man. Actor Walter Matthau comments that he was part of his dreams, his aspirations, while attorney Alan Dershowitz calls him “one of the most accomplished members of his religion.” And it wasn’t so much that Greenberg was an observant Jew. He wasn’t; although he had enough honor to realize that it was wrong to play baseball on Yom Kippur in 1934. The son of Romanian immigrants had agreed to play ten days earlier, on the Jewish New Year, after a Detroit rabbi had said that, according to his reading of the ancient Talmud, Jews had played games on that day and the right-hander could indeed take to the plate in the heat of a fierce pennant race. ABC sportscaster Dick Schaap adds a postscript later that the rabbi was perhaps more devoted to the sport than to his God, as the boys playing were not Jews but Romans.

A parade of more than seventy fans, fellow players, and relatives recall moments when their lives proudly intersected with Hank’s. Or were inspired by his greatness. Some are cute, such as Rabbis Reeve Brenner and Max Tickton, simply “fans” per the subtitle, telling of creating a silent baseball game using the first letters of paragraphs from their prayer books. Others are etched in tablets of virtue, when we learn that the hero of Tigertown, after having been misguidedly traded to the National League cellar dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates for the 1947 season, provides important words of encouragement and a helping hand to a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers, one Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the color barrier in the major leagues. Appropriate scenes from such films as Gentleman’s Agreement, Woman of the Year, and Night at the Opera are sprinkled about, adding suitable seriousness and fluff to the cause.

Of course, Greenberg’s many on-field achievements are regaled through ample clips of the first baseman shining efforts through three World Series, with majestic home runs sent towering out of the park. But it wasn’t all pleasantness, especially when he broke his wrist in the 1935 championships against the Chicago Cubs and had to watch his team win from the dugout. In 1940 Hank was uncomfortably moved to left field, but his team still made the series (losing to Cincinnati), yet the slugger was honored as the first player ever to win most valuable player laurels in two positions.

Oh yes, he was a war hero, too. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Greenberg exchanged No.5 for an infantry uniform and served his country until mid-1945, returning to the Tigers for two more crowd-pleasing seasons. He had been the first star ballplayer to enlist in the Armed Forces during World War II.

At present only six prints of the film have been struck, and most of those are unreeling in the New York City metropolitan area. The film has had many festival screenings (with more planned), and opens in Huntington (Long Island) and Boston at the end of February. To learn if this exceptional film will be coming to your neighborhood, check out

Aviva Kempner hits a grand slam with The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. You’ll strike out if you miss it. Peanuts, popcorn, and Tigers ball cap optional.

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