Baseball Moses

Heavy hitter: Hank Greenberg

Baseball history is chock full of great characters and great feats. But Aviva Kempner's The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, while offering plenty of both, is ultimately more a study of moral character and the sort of achievements that generally get short shrift in bland histories of the sport. Thirteen years in the making, and begun after Greenberg's death in 1986, Kempner's film is an unabashed valentine to a player whom her immigrant father worshiped, for good reason. Greenberg's brilliant, if abbreviated, major-league career was a model of inspiration, assimilation, and--not incidentally--accomplishment for millions of first- and second-generation American Jews in the Thirties and Forties, when anti-Semitism was rampant both in America and abroad.

Greenberg, though hardly a natural--he was huge, graceless, and clumsy in the field--was possessed of tremendous strength and an obsessive work ethic; in the film, some of his old teammates recall how he would take hours of extra batting and fielding practice, even paying stadium workers to shag balls for him. While he did put up some astonishing numbers (he was twice named American League MVP, and led the league in home runs and RBIs four times), his is not a name likely to be recognized by most casual baseball fans--he wasn't even named to the ESPN list of the 100 greatest athletes of the century, and he played in an era when he was overshadowed at first base by contemporaries Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Still, where the original Hammerin' Hank really made his mark was as an opportune symbol in 1934, a "Baseball Moses"--the first Jewish baseball superstar. And the obstacles and challenges he faced were, though not widely recognized as such, similar in many ways to those with which Jackie Robinson was confronted in breaking baseball's color line in 1947.

Greenberg was a product of the Bronx, the child of Romanian immigrants. After being spurned by the New York Giants, and with Gehrig occupying his natural position of first base with the hometown Yankees, he signed with the Detroit Tigers in the early 1930s. At the time, Detroit was a hotbed of American anti-Semitism, home to notorious Jew-baiter Henry Ford and, in nearby Royal Oak, the bigoted radio priest Father Coughlin. Greenberg had the constitution--and, perhaps more important, the talent--to thrive in an era when his unabashed Judaism made him the constant target of racially motivated abuse from opposing players and fans, as well as a vocal contingent of anti-Semites in his home park. It didn't hurt his case with the local fans that his arrival in Detroit signaled a marked upswing in the Tigers' fortunes; in Greenberg's first full season in Detroit, he hit .339 with 63 doubles and 139 RBIs, and led the Tigers to their first American League pennant in 25 years.

For Jews across the country, many of them newly arrived in America and reeling from the Depression, Greenberg's success at the most American of games was a daily reminder that Jews could fit in and assimilate on their own terms. And Greenberg, in defying virtually every existing Jewish stereotype, gave his legion of fans plenty to cheer about. In 1935, leading the Tigers to another pennant and a World Series title, he drove in 170 runs and was named American League MVP. He lost a season to a broken wrist but rebounded to drive in an incredible 183 runs in 1937, and, in 1938, to hit 58 home runs (two short of Babe Ruth's single season record). After an off year, he moved to the outfield in 1940 and won his second MVP award in leading the Tigers back to the World Series.

When the United States joined the war in 1941, Greenberg became the first major-league player to enlist, and he gave four and a half seasons in the prime of his career to the war effort, cementing forever his mythic status among American Jews of his generation. In 1945 he returned to the Tigers in midseason, hit a home run in his first game back, and belted a grand slam on the final day of the season to win the American League pennant for Detroit. Greenberg capped his heroic return with a World Series title, and would retire following a 1947 season in which he witnessed the arrival of Jackie Robinson and became the major league's first $100,000 player. In 1956 he became the first Jewish player elected to the baseball Hall of Fame, despite playing only nine full seasons in the major leagues.

Kempner's meticulous pastiche of period film and stock footage is interwoven with interviews with Greenberg's contemporaries, all of whom remember Greenberg as a larger-than-life folk hero in a time when Jewish popular heroes were in short supply. "My God, nobody ever saw a Jew that big," says one elderly fan, remembering the time Greenberg skipped a 1934 pennant-drive game to observe Yom Kippur at a local synagogue. Alan Dershowitz goes so far as to proclaim Greenberg "the most important American Jew of the 1930s," while Walter Matthau says that Greenberg was "part of my dreams," and recalls joining the Beverly Hills Tennis Club--"I didn't even play tennis," he says--in hopes of meeting his hero, who was a member there.

Greenberg, seen in extensive interview footage from late in his life, comes across as a genial, easygoing character. He was never a particularly devout man, but he had a keen understanding of his responsibilities as a symbol to millions of American Jews, and admits that he never wanted to do anything that would reflect badly on his heritage or disappoint his fans. Greenberg says all the right things so effortlessly that it is easy enough to see him as the unblemished hero his admirers--and Kempner--wish him to be. Yet it's clear that the pressure of being a symbol was more difficult than he ever let on. "When I first broke into baseball, every time they wrote about me it had something to do with my ethnic background," Greenberg says, sounding almost relieved to acknowledge that "When the war was over, ballplayers were no longer referred to by their religion."

And that may be Greenberg's real legacy. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is, finally, a moving and lively tribute to a man who was not so much a baseball pioneer as a legitimate hero.


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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