Friday, July 28, 2000

Film Review: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg by Steve Reynolds and Mike Faloon

Documentaries about baseball are a tricky proposition—does the filmmaker concentrate only on the sport itself, or on its cultural context? The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, by Aviva Kempner, strikes the right balance of satisfying the baseball junkies (i.e., us) while serving up a fascinating look at Jewish culture of the ’30s and ’40s, with a mix of poignant moments and belly-shaking laughs.

Greenberg is a Hall of Fame member, and racked up some astonishing stats: he led the A.L. in home runs and RBI’s for four different seasons; he won the MVP award in 1935 as a first baseman, and then again won it in 1940 after switching to the outfield for the good of his team. But for all of his on the field achievements, perhaps “Hammerin” Hank’s greatest feat was providing young Jewish boys of the day an idol. Director Kemper leans heavily on Greenberg’s fans to bring his legend alive: two rabbis reveal how baseball could be played even during services in a synagogue by using The Talmud; three boys from the Detroit area call him their “Greek god” and “the Moses of baseball”; actor Walter Matthau explains how he became a member of a California tennis club just so he could have a reason to talk to Greenberg. These recollections are supplemented by footage of Greenberg’s career, and insightful interviews with Greenberg himself, conducted just a few years before he died in 1986, and his Detroit Tigers teammates.

Kemper also shows how Greenberg was a leader with more than just his bat. He was one of the first major league ballplayers to go into the Army via the draft, and re-upped after his one year of service expired days before Pearl Harbor. Greenberg was the subject of racist taunts by fans and opposing ballplayers during his career, so he served as an inspiration to Jackie Robinson during the Dodgers second baseman’s first season, which happened to be Greenberg’s last.

Making a film on a ballplayer overshadowed by the legends of his time like Lou Gehrig and Ted Williams (who says that Greenberg was his favorite player) isn’t the easiest subject, and Life and Times does falter at times. Clips from movies of the era that try to emphasize points about the bigotry of the time seem out of place, and watching prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz ramble on like he’s doing another appearance on CNN during the heyday of the O.J. trial is a bit much. And Greenberg’s intriguing post-playing career (serving as the general manager of the last Cleveland Indians team to win the world series, co-owner of the Chicago White Sox with the legendary Bill Veeck, testifying for Curt Flood during the St. Louis outfielder’s bid for free agency) is reduced to series of end titles.

From a baseball fan’s point of view, the best tidbit in the film is Greenburg’s love of not the home run, but the RBI. The Life and Times of Hank Greenburg isn’t a grand slam, but it is a bases clearing double.

--Steve Reynolds

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