Of all the many parts of the lore of the history of Major League Baseball, perhaps the story of Hank Greenberg gets overlooked the easiest. Yet, the transcendent impact that the first great Jewish sports superstar had on both baseball and America truly aligns with both the times and progression of sports and America at large. In the film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” director Aviva Kempner brought to life the story of one of the great progressive stars in sports history.
The story presented in the film covering the Detroit Tigers great is a dual chronicle of the Golden Age of baseball, as well as a story of cultural expansion in the United States. Greenberg was exceptional in every way. He was one of the great ballplayers of any generation (two-time MVP, four seasons of 40 home runs, an indisputable 58 in 1938). But more than that, his story is the story of both cultural challenges and evolution. Greenberg stood for a people, a Jewish people that largely wasn’t accepted in America. His successes were far from just his own. They brought pride and a new identity to a discriminated against and marginalized culture.
“The Life and Times …” goes in depth in chronicling all of these feats of the Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer. “In a Jewish family, Hank Greenberg is what Jackie Robinson is in a Black family or what Joe DiMaggio is in an Italian family,” says Kempner, a native of Detroit, “for his accomplishments and the adversity he stood up to.” From his time as a youth in the Bronx to his rise to fame and challenges he faced while defying the cultural barriers and discrimination that faced him along the way, his balancing act between his responsibilities to his faith and baseball are documented, as well as how they made him a true people’s champion.
The tough decisions of his life are also put into an important light. From going against the grain of his upbringing to pursue baseball to giving it up to fight in World War II for over three years in the middle of his prime, due to a devotion to a country that was often very hard on him, Greenberg’s life comes into focus. Special attention is shown to both the warm greetings and experience he shared with a young Jackie Robinson, as he broke into baseball amid a cloud of segregation and defiance that perhaps no other player besides Greenberg had experienced so clearly before. A fighter for integration in baseball, both during his career and after it, Greenberg dedicated his life to the forwarding of American life, via the doorway of sports.
The 95-minute film itself is just the beginning of the story. His long-lasting legacy is taken into even greater detail in the newly released extra features, which accompany the DVD. The two hours of bonus footage include testimonials on Greenberg from such figures as Walter Matthau, Senator Carl Levin and Dick Schaap and many more, who offer heartfelt stories on what Greenberg stood for to the Jewish community, both then and now. Legendary Hall of Fame opponents Bob Feller and Ted Williams are also featured, espousing on their encounters with Greenberg as well. Yet the most unique and insightful commentary comes from his children, who contributed many stories and perspectives only they could offer to round the work out.
“He realized the responsibility of being a role model,” Kempner reflected. “When you feel the responsibility of representing your people, you go out of the way to be as good as you can.”
Whether you are a baseball fan or historian, or hold an interest in a riveting portrayal of the coming of age of America, Kempner’s tribute to the first great minority star in Major League Baseball is a must see. It is a truly unique look at the great days of the America’s game, and the twofold stories of one of the greatest legends of both the game, and of the people.
To own this remarkable documentary, log on to www.hankgreenbergfilm.org, the exclusive outlet for the film, directly from the director and documentor, Aviva Kempner.
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.