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The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

Starring: Hank Greenberg, Walter Matthau
Director: Aviva Kempner
Rated: R
RunTime: 108 Minutes
Release Date: January 2000
Genres: Documentary, Sports

*Also starring: Michael Moriarty, Maury Povich, Ernie Harwell, Ralph Kiner, Bob Feller, Charlie Gehringer

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Those of us who think that there's something sinister, something wrong about the political correctness movement might have a change of mind after seeing "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." This documentary about one of the greatest Jewish ballplayers of the century illustrates the hatred allowed to come out of the mouths of some degenerate Americans, Americans who somehow thought that if a person is not a white Christian, he has no business playing in a game that was "meant for them." Happily the PC movement may not have changed everyone's mind about racial and religious minorities, but at least unhealthy slurs are not in fashion, at least in public, as they seem to have been during the era that saw Greenberg challenge Babe Ruth's record of homers. Greenberg was a player for the Detroit Tigers from 1933-1946 before he was traded by them to the Pirates for whom he played an additional season. Aviva Kempner's congenial and often rousing and humorous documentary gives us access to some archival footage of Greenberg both at bat and on first base and in left field. But her focus is foremost on the fact that Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish baseball player who, though completely secular, never hid his religion despite its unpopularity with the bigots of this country. (He was not the first Jewish ballplayer in the Majors: a few, not named here, preceded him, but they had apparently changed their names to pass for Christian.)

Punctuating the documentary with Henry Sapoznik's Klezmer-infused score, director Kempner--whose previous work was as co-scripter and producer of "Partisans of Vilna" (about Jewish resistance against the Nazis)--succeeds in this 12-year-long labor of love to give us a grand look at the handsome but gawky, 6'4" athlete who served as an icon for Jews throughout the country. Setting her footage of pennant- winning and series-winning baseball games against interviews with forty-odd fans, family and celebrities, she gives us a rounded picture of the largely anti-Semitic spirit of the times, a spirit which led to Greenberg's being greeted by hate-filled catcalls from the stands and in one instance even from the bench of an opposing team. Young people today would be aghast to see samples of help-wanted pages from the thirties advertising for "Christians Only" and "Must be of Anglo-Saxon descent--as such proclamations are not only illegal today but would be laughable outside circles like KKK, the American Nazi party and so-called white citizens' councils. Yet during the 1930s a figure as illustrious as Henry Ford would publish a book called "The International Jew" (how those of the Jewish persuasion were corrupting capitalism and furthering communism).

Documentaries are not very popular in America, the principal reason being perhaps the fear that they are little more than opportunities for talking heads. Talking heads do indeed populate the film, but those captured by Thomas Kaufman's camera are an amusing lot, including Walter Matthau and Alan Dershowitz. Though not alluded to in the film, Dershowitz, one of the country's foremost attorneys, had written a book called "Chutzpah," in which he challenges Jews to be proud of their heritage and do nothing to hide their ethnic identity. In the interview, he explains that during the thirties and forties, Jews were supposed to be quiet, or as they say in Yiddish "shta, shtill." Jews were damned if they failed and damned if they succeeded, so the common wisdom was "Don't make waves." Greenberg becomes, therefore, one of Dershowitz's heroes, particularly when in deference to his heritage and out of respect for his parents, he refused to play ball on Yom Kippur despite turning in an impressive performance on the preceding Rosh Hashanah. (In the movie's most engaging note, we learn that Greenberg's rabbi, citing the Talmud, allowed Greenberg to ply his trade on the Jewish New Year because "children in ancient times played sporting games in the streets of Jerusalem." What the rabbi deliberately hid from the ball player's ears was that those were Roman kids, not Jewish youngsters).

Detractors of Hank Greenberg include a cop, photographed when giving the player a ticket for going through an amber light and saying "Who in hell ever heard of a Greenberg being a ball player?" Yet another was his drill sergeant-- Greenberg took up arms in World War 2--who announced to his men, "I don't want any Cohens or Goldbergs on my team." The athlete raised his hand and said, "My name is Greenberg." Looking at the muscular, 6'4" hero, the drill sergeant mumbled, "I didn't say anything about Greenbergs."

For lack of funding, Kempner persisted for 12 years to get this film out to the public, making her, like Greenberg, a hero. Framed by Mandy Patinkin's singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in Yiddish against a backdrop of Bronx kids during the Depression throwing the horsehide around the local streets, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is well deserving of the Audience Award it garnered from those attending its screening at a Hamptons Film Festival.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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