Before home runs got as cheap as bubble gum, the great Detroit Tiger slugger Hank Greenberg stood out as one of just ten major-league players who had hit fifty or more dingers in a season. In that, the original Hammerin' Hank's company was rare: Ruth, Foxx, Wilson, Kiner, Mize, Mantle, Mays, Maris and Foster. Until the juiced ball, weak pitching and steroids drove power-hitting statistics into the realm of the absurd, these were the only members of the club. Career home-run leader Henry Aaron never hit fifty in one year. Neither did Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Ted Kluszewski, Ted Williams, Willie McCovey or Reggie Jackson. Joe DiMaggio's high was 46, in 1937. In 1938, Greenberg hit 58 -- two short of Babe Ruth's record.
For this feat alone, Greenberg would have attained baseball immortality. But he also helped his club win four pennants, averaged .313 over thirteen seasons and batted .318 in 23 World Series games. In 1956 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he remains one of the greatest players in history.
Most of this seems to be of passing interest to Aviva Kempner, the director of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. For Kempner, whose earlier film was Partisans of Vilna, a documentary about Jewish resistance to the Nazis, Greenberg was not a baseball player who happened to be Jewish, but a Jew who happened to play baseball. Her documentary bristles with grievance -- for the gross anti-Semitism Greenberg endured in the 1930s and 1940s and for the unenlightened state of the society in which he grew up. To Kempner, the indignities Greenberg suffered by way of loudmouthed bench jockeys and abusive fans are more important than the 63 doubles he hit in 1934 or the .340 batting average he had in 1940. For these 95 minutes, he is reinvented as the Jewish Jackie Robinson -- and no less a martyr to a cause.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Especially in his early years with Detroit, Greenberg was mercilessly razzed by opposing players and fans. "Throw him a pork chop," one Chicago Cub yelled. "He can't hit that." But this was hardly the essence of his career, which Greenberg surveyed with grace and a touch of swagger. In the end, bigotry didn't kill him, as it killed Robinson; cancer did. Given the fascinations of Greenberg's playing years and the dogged bravery with which this relatively lumbering self-made star played the game, The Life and Times could have done with a little more specific biographical detail and a little less special pleading.
To be sure, Kempner is strong on the inspirational effect Hank had on fellow Jews everywhere. Actor Walter Matthau tells her: "He was part of my dreams...I wanted to be Hank Greenberg," and attorney Alan Dershowitz describes how this baseball hero defied every stereotype, defied "everything they said we couldn't be." There were never any Jews, Dershowitz goes on, "who did things in a physical sense." Really? Greenberg might have been the first great Jewish baseball star, but if the good counselor were to examine, say, boxing in the early twentieth century, he would find any number of Greenbergs and Dershowitzes therein, bloody in fang and claw.
Perhaps the most moving testament to Greenberg's special powers comes from an anonymous old fan who says: "He fought my battles in his absence. If you're a Jewish kid, you got Hank Greenberg on your side."
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Hank, of course, had such luminaries as Charlie Gehringer, Rudy York, Mickey Cochrane and Goose Goslin on his side, but Kempner tells us precious little about his relationships with them -- or about his internal life. A boy from the Bronx whom both the Giants and the Yankees let slip away (although you don't learn it here, Giants manager John McGraw thought him "clumsy"), Greenberg set out for the Detroit organization on the promise of a scholarship to Princeton. A semester at New York University later, he'd given up the lure of academe for the more immediate attractions of baseball -- and the things that go with baseball. This documentary makes no mention of Greenberg's sizable ego, and it barely hints at the tall, exceptionally handsome player's tastes for handmade clothes, women and nightclubs. It doesn't even bother to recount the highly illuminating story about the sawdust. To wit: Hank's father, who at first resisted his son's eagerness to play ball, ordered him to get rid of a mound of sawdust Hank had dumped in the front yard to use as a sliding pit; instead, the boy carried the sawdust to and fro each day so he could practice sliding and avoid Dad's wrath.
Devotees of the Greenberg epic also love the story about his mother's vow to make him 61 baseball-shaped portions of gefilte fish if he broke Ruth's home-run record in 1938, but that's nowhere to be found here. Too ethnic? Instead, Kempner asserts that the real reason Greenberg didn't belt sixty that year was because anti-Semitic opposing managers and pitchers kept issuing him intentional walks. In light of this claim, it's a good thing Kempner isn't managing in the big leagues these days: Any club that doesn't try to pitch around Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire whenever possible is out of its mind, and in Greenberg's day, the opposition was no less ignorant when facing a slugger who could beat you with a single swipe of the bat. If anything, Greenberg was far more valuable to his team's prospects than today's pumped-up, phonied-up homer dudes. It's not for nothing that Hank walked 852 times in 1,394 regular-season games. He gave four years away to fight in World War II; otherwise, who knows how much greater he would have been?
Despite some complaints, there's plenty to like -- and much to admire -- in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. Certainly, it appreciates the man, if in a one-dimensional way. The archival footage of old World Series games, street scenes in the Bronx, and the suave, silvery Greenberg talking to ESPN interviewer Roy Firestone three years before his death in 1986 is startlingly effective. And the revelation that in the last year of his career, he supported the beleaguered Jackie Robinson in the first year of his, puts an appropriate exclamation point on a film that is essentially about the cruelties and stupidities of prejudice.
By the way, if you've never heard "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" sung in Yiddish, you're in for a treat. If baseball was once the land of bigots, it's a big, sunny country now, and John Rocker be damned.