Heroes matter. Their achievements show people that society’s commonly accepted limitations can be pushed farther back than expected. The character of the best heroes demonstrates an awareness and humility regarding other peoples’ emotional investment in their successes. Especially in times of great turmoil, the hero’s presence is particularly crucial. Hank Greenberg, the titular subject of Aviva Kempner’s lively and entertaining documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” wore the hero’s mantle well in his years as a professional baseball player. When the crack of Greenberg’s bat led to yet another run batted in (RBI), Jewish-Americans in particular couldn’t help feeling that yet another crack had also been made in America’s wall of socially acceptable anti-Semitism. Long commercially unavailable, Kempner’s endearing documentary returns in a new 2-disc DVD set. The new set contains the original film. But it also features Kempner’s commentary on the film, twenty-seven extra or deleted scenes, and a handy statistical listing of Greenberg’s professional playing career. The entire film package will thrill and inspire a new generation of both baseball fans and even non-baseball fans.
“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” lives up to and exceeds the expectations created by its title. It tells the story of Greenberg’s years playing for both the Detroit Tigers and the Pittsburg Pirates. Yet Kempner’s documentary also captures with genuine admiration the social and political significance of Greenberg’s achievements on the baseball field.
The former Bronx resident’s career mattered because its public existence provided a popular rebuttal to America’s openly anti-Semitic attitudes. His handsome 6’4” athleticism contrasted greatly with the short and/or nerdy stereotype applied to Jews. He played for a city that was also the home base of such avowed enemies of the Jews as auto industrialist Henry Ford and radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin. Through hundreds of practice sessions, Greenberg’s mastery of a sport considered the most American of cultural signifiers announced to the world that Jews also had a prominent place in American society.
Kempner captures the irony of the attention focused in the 1930s on the player’s Jewish identity. Despite hailing from an Orthodox family, Greenberg’s religious observance was generally very limited. He did famously wrestle with a conflict between playing a crucial game and observing Yom Kippur. But as one of his sons observed, his version of a spiritual experience involved a Hayden Planetarium trip which imbued a sense of awe about the universe.
Greenberg’s lack of fervent religious observance definitely wasn’t a form of denial about his identity. He may not have intently studied the Torah on his down time. But his using continual anti-Semitic catcalls as spurs to improve his performance on the playing field provided his own way of affirming his heritage. It’s especially satisfying to learn Greenberg’s passing of that hard-won lesson to then rookie Jackie Robinson helped the latter deal with his own struggles with bigotry.
Fan Alan Dershowitz doesn’t exaggerate when he dubs Greenberg the most important Jew of the 1930s. His broad shoulders were well suited to bear the burden of inspiring Jewish Americans to believe they could build satisfying lives in America outside the garment industry. It’s humbling to realize that Greenberg’s fan base included such figures as Senator Carl Levin and actor Walter Matthau.
Kempner brings a wonderfully puckish wit to her telling of Greenberg’s life. Inspired film clips from such sources as “Woman of the Year” and “Gentleman’s Agreement” offer wry commentary on recounted events. The musical score provides some wonderful surprises, particularly Henry Sapoznik’s Yiddish rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” and the tribute song “Goodbye Mr. Ball” with Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx, and Greenberg himself. But the film’s heart belongs to the wonderful anecdotes Kempner uses in the film. Rabbis Reeve Brenner and Max Tichtin’s remembrance of their Seder baseball game is just one of the delights found here.
The director’s decision to keep the documentary’s focus on Greenberg’s career as a player meant leaving out a wealth of material that couldn’t fit in the film, such as anecdotes about Greenberg’s co-ownership with Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. With the extra scenes disc, that footage is now available to interested viewers. Scenes concerning Greenberg’s pre-baseball years and the Detroit Tigers’ infield hitting team will either satisfy those wanting more information or feel a bit too insider baseball-ish.
The extra scenes also include material discovered after the original filming was completed. Two gems would have to be an excerpt from the feature film “The Kid From Cleveland” and an interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The obscure 1949 film features footage of Greenberg and Veeck. The Ginsburg interview discusses how Greenberg’s conflict between ballplaying and Yom Kippur led to a rule adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg’s anecdote is just one example of Kempner’s thesis that Greenberg’s impact on baseball went far beyond his amazing hitting, which took the Detroit Tigers to the World Series four times. Greenberg’s modifications of the flat pancake style baseball glove led to the first baseman’s glove design still in use today. His tenure as Cleveland Indians co-owner led to such innovations as electric scoreboards and more black players in the professional leagues. His mistreatment by the Detroit Tigers’ owner surely influenced his testifying in support of Curt Flood’s suit to end an employment system where players were virtual slaves of the team owner.
One may wonder with the free agency system and the steroid abuse scandals whether baseball has become devalued as America’s national pastime. Kempner’s film offers a ringing reminder of the inspirational power of this sport to spur cooperation with others to achieve a common goal and to push oneself to hone their skills for the team. Readers and viewers unfamiliar with Greenberg’s amazing story need to check out this enthralling portrait of a man and his society.
(“The Life And Times Of Hank Greenberg” can be ordered via the film’s official website hankgreenbergfilm.org