“Call him the hero of heroes. Call him the champion of champions. Call him the hero of Bengaltown.”
Thus began a newspaper article published in The Detroit Free Press the day after Hank Greenberg blasted a pivotal ninth-inning grand slam that sent his Detroit Tigers to the 1945 World Series. Hammerin’ Hank’s slugging ability elevated him to the upper echelon of baseball stardom among players such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Yet perhaps Greenberg’s greatest legacy was serving as a beacon of hope and inspiration to Jews in the United States.
You will feel immense pride upon viewing the documentary, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” The 2001 Peabody Award-winning film is being re-released this week with additional footage.
The documentary is a delightful film that chronicles Greenberg’s extraordinary life. Directed by Aviva Kempner, the movie traces the trajectory of his illustrious career, from humble roots in the Bronx to professional stardom with the Detroit Tigers.
Greenberg played first base and left field for the Tigers from 1933 to 1941, then enlisted in the U.S. Army. After serving several years he returned to the sport in top form. He played for the Tigers from 1945 to 1946 and retired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947.
Baseball was all the rage during Greenberg’s childhood, but his mother, not surprisingly, wanted him to become the Jewish doctor or lawyer. Luckily for the Jewish people, Hank was anything but conventional. He “decided that the baseball bug was too strong to resist” and adamantly pursued his passion, said his son Stephen Greenberg in the movie.
Kempner’s documentary tells in a masterful manner Greenberg’s story. Narration drives a documentary and, fortunately, the narration of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is superb. To assemble the biography, Kempner interviewed a vast pool of people including family members and fans, as well as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. She also incorporated into the film her 1993 interview with Greenberg. Watching him on screen enabled me to forge a personal connection with this incredible man.
The unique perspectives of people who grew up in Greenberg’s era left the most lasting impressions because the Jewish player’s impact on them was tangible. Don Shapiro, a retired oral surgeon and avid fan, called Greenberg, “a Messiah, a Moses.”
From the moment he stepped onto the baseball diamond, Greenberg was subjected to an endless barrage of taunts because of his religion. Opposing players yelled, “Throw him a pork chop, he can’t hit that” and a policeman once asked him, “Who in the hell ever heard of a Greenberg being a professional baseball player?” There was always “someone getting on me,” Greenberg recounted.
Anti-Semitism festered in the city of Detroit; Nazism was rampant. In such difficult times, American Jewry needed someone to brush away their fears and ignite the embers of pride within their hearts. Hank delivered.
Even as his fame increased exponentially, Greenberg never denied his Jewishness. He identified as a symbol for the Jewish people. Aware of the innumerable eyes fixated on him, Greenberg ignored the incessant jeers and focused on how he could motivate his beleaguered people. Famously, as the Tigers were fighting for the pennant in 1934, Greenberg opted to observe Yom Kippur instead of playing in a critical game against the New York Yankees.
I always held Hank Greenberg in high esteem for this unbelievable act of selflessness and devotion. Yet my regard for him reached an entirely new level when I learned from this documentary that he was not even a practicing Jew. Despite rarely attending synagogue, Greenberg recognized that he had a responsibility as a role model and a source of encouragement for the Jewish people. He respected his religion, earning him the admiration of his peers and of his nation. Hank Greenberg was a hero.
I was astounded by how significantly “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” affected me. Prior to watching the documentary, all I knew about Hank Greenberg was that he was a remarkable Jewish ballplayer. I had no inkling of his many achievements including two MVP (most valuable player) awards; two World Series championships; numerous mentions in the record books; and a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I was unaware of Greenberg’s altruistic military service and his powerful, supportive friendship with a young Jackie Robinson. I did not know that in his time, Greenberg was the pride and joy of Detroit and of the Jewish people. He is seldom given the attention or admiration that he deserves. He defied every Jewish stereotype of the time, leading Alan Dershowitz to call him “the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s.”
“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is a tribute to a man who inspired a generation and continues to inspire people to this day. A special two disc DVD edition of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is now available for purchase at http://www.hankgreenbergfilm.org.