Aviva Kempner's THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG opens with "Take Me Out
To The Ball Game" sung in Yiddish, which made it my second movie with
Yiddish in a single day. (The other was the phenomenal Romeo-and-Juliet
story called SOLOMON AND GAENOR.)
Hank Greenberg, an amazing athlete, was the first Jew to make it big in the
major leagues. A "lumbering giant" on the field, he was a 6-foot-4 first
baseman who was twice named Most Valuable Player and who helped his team,
the Detroit Tigers, win pennants and World Series. Although a few Jews had
some earlier, smaller successes in baseball, they changed their names to
mask their ethnic identity.
This traditionally composed documentary tells the story of Greenberg's
incredible career and of the prejudice that he faced. It makes the point
that all ethnic groups were harassed on the field, but, being the only Jew,
Greenberg suffered more than the others like the Italians and the Irish.
Some of the film's talking heads, such as famous liberal lawyer Alan M.
Dershowitz, see conspiracies afoot against Greenberg. When Greenberg came
close to breaking Babe Ruth's home run record, Dershowitz claimed that the
pitchers weren't being fair to Greenberg because he was a Jew, otherwise he
would have cracked the record. In an interview taped in 1983, Greenberg
pooh-poohed this idea, claiming that he got a fair shot. He said that he
was proud to have come within 2 home runs of Ruth's record and asked how
many people can say that.
A boy from the Bronx who was born of Romanian-immigrant parents, he was more
than just a hero to his old neighborhood, he was called the "king" and the
"emperor." Walking down the street, the kids flocked to him like a god.
"Growing up in the Bronx in the 30s, you thought of nothing but baseball and
Hank Greenberg," Walter Matthau tells us. Matthau says that Greenberg's
success gave him confidence that he didn't have to go to work in the garment
district when he grew up.
Many of the interviewees are labeled simply as "fan." One of them says that
they were what we call "groupies" today. They worshiped Greenberg and
followed him whenever they could.
Greenberg's focus generally wasn't on the more glamorous and traditional
home runs or batting average. Instead, he tried to get the highest number
of RBIs (runs batted in) since that is what wins games.
The movie commendably and honestly spends almost as much time on Greenberg's
failures as his successes. People remember his big plays, but the film
reminds us too of those times when he missed the key hit or the essential
catch that could have won one of the big games. This approach gives the
documentary a heightened sense of credibility.
When most people think of prejudice and baseball, they think of Jackie
Robinson. It turns out that towards the end of Greenberg's career, Robinson
literally ran into him -- at first base. Picking him up, Greenberg gave him
a little advice and encouragement. As much flack as Greenberg got, he said
that nothing he experienced was as bad as what Robinson had to endure.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG runs 1:30. It is not rated but would
be a G and has nothing to offend anyone of any age.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes