In honor of the World Series, take a look at this documentary about baseball star Hank Greenberg.
Brilliant documentary-maker Aviva Kempner has created a gem of a movie to lift the spirit of anyone who cares about baseball — or heroes.
Hank Greenberg was that rarest of sports stars, someone who was as good as his fans hoped he was — in fact, he was even better. Over and over, in this movie, we see accomplished, distinguished men get teary-eyed as they talk about how much Hank Greenberg meant to them when they were growing up. Senator Carl Levin said, “Because he was a hero, I was a little bit of a hero, too.” Lawyer-to-the-stars Alan Dershowitz says, “Baseball was our way of showing that we were as American as anyone else.”
“We” meant Jews. Hank Greenberg was not the first Jewish baseball player, but he was the first one to be proudly Jewish. He did not change his name and he did not hide his religion. He missed a day of the World Series to observe Yom Kippur (though he did play on Rosh Hashanah, thanks to a clearance from a rabbi who was a baseball fan). And he was a star. Dershowitz said, “He was what they said Jews could never be.”
Kempner combines stock footage and contemporary interviews with fans, friends, family, and teammates to give a glowing portrait of Greenberg, who died in 1986, and, as the title promises, of his era.
Greenberg faced a lot of prejudice. He played for the Detroit Tigers in a city whose leading citizen, Henry Ford, was a virulent anti-Semite. One of his teammates was a country boy who had never met a Jew before and literally expected Greenberg to have horns. But Greenberg never took it personally and never became bitter. He said that it made him work harder because if he failed, “I wasn’t a bum; I was a Jewish bum.” Not a religious or observant man, he was very aware of his role as a symbol, and, as a fan notes, “he wore his Jewishness on his sleeve and in his heart.” At the end of his career, he helped support another baseball player he perhaps understood better than anyone — Jackie Robinson.
Greenberg missed four seasons at the top of his career because he was serving in WWII. And at the end of his career he was impulsively traded by an owner who mistakenly thought he was thinking of leaving. He spoke of those incidents with regret, but without anger. One of the great treats of this movie is see not just how well Greenberg handled adversity, but how well he handled fame and success, remaining humble, honest, and dedicated through it all.
Perhaps most revealing of Greenberg’s character was the one statistic that he cared about, in this most statistic-ridden of sports — RBIs. He loved being the one who batted clean-up, “the guy that comes up at the clutch, changes the ball game, makes all the difference.” He could have gone for the home run record, but he was the ultimate team player.
His teammates and friends talk, also, about his dedication. He was the hardest-working of ball-players, paying anyone he could find to pitch to him for extra batting practice and even stripping down in a friend’s dress-making studio so he could examine his batting stance in a three-way mirror.
Parents should know that while younger kids might not understand the movie, there is nothing objectionable in it — and how many of today’s sports figures could inspire a documentary about which that statement could be made?
Families who see this movie should talk about America’s history of prejudice and about the different ways that people handle adversity — and success. Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, broadcast on PBS and available on video.