Moving Biopic Belatedly Illuminates Shining Career of Jewish Baseball Great
Baseball Hall of Famer Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg compiled impressive stats over a relatively-brief, ten-year major league career which began in 1933 with the Detroit Tigers. He led the American League (A.L.) in home runs four times, hitting 58 in 1938 when he came close to eclipsing Babe Ruth’s standing record of 60.
Greenberg also led the league in RBIs (Runs Batted In) four times, falling just one short of Lou Gehrig’s A.L. record of 184 in 1937. Hank was the first person to ever win the Most Valuable Player award at different positions: as a first baseman in 1935, then as a left fielder in 1940. With him as their leader, the Tigers won four A.L. pennants and a couple of World Series.
As prodigious a hitter as Hank was, his life bears remembrance for so many more reasons. And we have director Aviva Kempner to thank for belatedly giving him his due.
Ms. Kempner devoted 13 years of her life to making The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a moving biopic which seamlessly interweaves archival footage with interviews with his teammates, relatives, celebrities and fans. The picture features snippets of some classic baseball movies, too, which only begs the question: Why didn’t Hollywood ever see fit to tell his story?
After all, baseball is the national pastime, and nostalgic biographies of its heroes are a cultural staple. Such celebrated classics include Pride of the Yankees (about Lou Gehrig), The Babe Ruth Story, The Winning Team (about Grover Cleveland Alexander), The Jackie Robinson Story, The Monty Stratton Story, The Pride of St. Louis (about Dizzy Dean), 61 (about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris), Cobb (about Ty Cobb), and Soul of the Game (about Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson).
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is an important film which elicits tears of joy and of sorrow while holding you in its thrall. Much like the game of baseball itself, the movie manages to be entertaining, informative and ultimately oh so exhilarating.
We learn along the way that Hank was the first openly-Jewish major leaguer, this at a time when it was very dangerous to be a Jew. Born in New York City in 1911, the strapping, 6’ 4” son of Romanian immigrants was raised Orthodox by parents who taught him to wear his ethnicity proudly.
However, Hank’s career began during The Depression in Detroit, a town whipped into a frenzy of racial hatred and religious intolerance by Henry Ford. There, the automobile magnate had published and widely distributed “The International Jew,” a book which amounted to little more than an anti-Semitic diatribe.
Another bigot living in the Motor City at the time was a Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest who spewed his anti-black, anti-Jewish brand of hate over the air on a nationally-syndicated radio show. From 1926 right up until America entered World War II, Coughlin not only advocated Nazism but defended pogroms against innocent Jews.
Consequently, taunts and slurs became part of Hank’s everyday life, both in Detroit and on the road. Yet, he always carried himself with dignity, handling the derision and discrimination he encountered with a remarkable courage.
Despite the fact that Nazi rallies were being staged all across the U.S. in arenas like Madison Square Garden, he was willing to serve as a very visible role model for the Jewish community. He made a big statement in the fall of 1934 when, at the peak of a wave of American anti-Semitism, he opted to miss a critical Tiger game to observe Yom Kippur.
And although he was excoriated by the hometown fans and in the press, he received a standing ovation at his synagogue. Despite the mistreatment, Hank remained a patriot. For, just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, he enlisted in the Army, missing the next several seasons at the peak of his career.
Who knows what records he might otherwise have set? He rejoined the Tigers halfway through 1945, and carried the team to a World Series championship. The next year, he again led the league in homers and RBIs.
In 1947, Greenberg’s last season in the majors, he was traded to Pittsburgh. That year, he played a critical role in the country’s social evolution, because it was the same season that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When Jackie was being mercilessly subject to brutal, non-stop harassment from fans, opponents and even his own teammates, Hank was the first player from another team to welcome him. “You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up,” he said when the Pirates and Dodgers met for a series in May. Jackie, in turn, told a reporter, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”
Enuf said. A moving tribute to an overlooked American icon who invariably exhibited an admirable combination of integrity, humility and loyalty.
Excellent (4 Stars)
Rated PG for epithets and mature themes.
Running time: 95 minutes
Studio: Ciesla Foundation
Commemorative 2-Disc DVD Extras: Commentary with writer/producer/director Aviva Kempner; over 2 hours of additional interviews with fans, celebrities and baseball players; Hank Greenberg biography; Hank Greenberg stats; filmmaker biography; reviews and awards; and theatrical trailers.
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To order a copy of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg on DVD, visit: http://hankgreenbergfilm.org/?page_id=9