MORIARTY Reviews THE LIFE & TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG On DVD!! Great Baseball Documentary!!
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
It’s not a subtle start, but it gets the point across: vintage footage of children playing stickball in the street as we hear “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” performed in Yiddish. We see footage of Hammerin’ Hank Greeberg stepping up to bat, hear him described as a “two-time winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award,” and we see him knock one out of the park as a Rabbi describes growing up in the ‘30s and the ‘40s with Greenberg as a hero. “Pretty much all you talked about was baseball and Hank Greenberg.” There’s a novelty song that plays that goes, “Goodbye, Mr. Ball, goodbye/You better kiss your relatives goodbye/Cause when Hank comes to the plate/Ball, you’re gonna be out late/So goodbye, Mr. Ball, Goodbye!” And we watch Hank take the bases, that lumbering gait of his. We get a sense of how ingrained into the culture he was, how great a player he was, and yes, what a significant figure he was for the Jewish community in terms of American mainstream acceptance. All in the first few minutes of this film by writer/producer/director Aviva Kempner.
This is one of those DVDs that shows up that I knew very little about before throwing on, and it’s another case where someone’s done me a favor by sending me something to watch. The film’s a joy, unfolding with a grace that makes it feel like well-crafted fiction. It’s like if Woody Allen decided to make a baseball movie and created a perfect central character to use to tell the story of Jewish acceptance in America, not only in the sport but in general society as well. Because of when Hank Greenberg played, he is more than just a great player or a Hall of Famer. He’s also a cultural milestone, like Jackie Robinson was. We see Walter Matthau, Alan Dershowitz, Senator Carl Levin, and others talk about the impact Greenberg had on them while growing up.
Born on January 1, 1911, his name was misspelled on his birth certificate. Not understanding the Yiddish name he was told, the registrar wrote “Henry” on the form. Despite being raised in an orthodox Romanian Jewish home, Hank developed an obssession early on for baseball. To him and his peers, it was a defining American trait. Hank practiced with an astonishing fervor. There’s interview footage with Greenberg here that’s just fascinating. He’s an engaging speaker, entertaining, with a great sense of humor and an easy charm. There’s also a surprising number of photos from his childhood and early life as well as film footage. It all comes together to help create a rich and textured portrait of his life.
I love the music in the film. They use “Hold That Tiger,” a song I first fell in love with in Francis Coppola’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM, but which was written about the Detroit Tigers. In the early part of his career, Greenberg played in Beaumont, in the Texas leagues, and he speaks with humor about the racism that he encountered there. “My teammate… when he saw me, he couldn’t understand because he had always been told that Jews had horns. And here I was, I looked like a normal human being, and he couldn’t figure it out.” When Hank got pulled over one time and the cop asked him what he did for a living, he told the incredulous officer “I’m a baseball player.” “Who ever heard of a Jewish ball player?!” the cop sputtered.
It was just as unthinkable for Greenberg to play in Detroit. In the early ‘30s, the town was one of the main centers of anti-Semitism in the United States. This was the town that Henry Ford built, and he was, remember, the author of such inflammatory works as THE INTERNATIONAL JEW, a book that “exposed” the Jewish conspiracy behind Communism, Prohibition, and all things anti-American. Local broadcasters gave firey anti-Semitic speeches on the radio. The town was broke, plants were closing, and Jews made great scapegoats. On the other hand, the ballpark was one of the city’s sources of pride, so a good ballplayer was treated well. To Hank, this sort of hatred gave him fuel to do well as a player. He knew he couldn’t be slack on the field, because he already had a strike against him. Hank chose not to change his name, as many Jewish players before him had done. This took real guts at a time when Jews were still openly discriminated against. The film uses clips from other movies to help set cultural context for what we’re watching, like Gregory Peck in FRIENDLY PERSUASION.
The film traces the 1934 pennant race against the Yankees in great detail, and it’s great stuff. Again, it’s almost too perfect to believe. Good guys and bad guys, a shining hero in the form of Greenberg, ups and downs... it’s the stuff movies are made of. I’m surprised there’s never been a big Hank Greenberg movie. It’s that good a story. As in CHARIOTS OF FIRE, the subject of the Sabbath is brought up. Greenberg received special permission to play on Rosh Hashanah, and in return, the local newspaper actually ran “Happy New Year” in Hebrew across the front page out of respect for Greenberg. When he chose to take Yom Kippur off, it was a sign of Greenberg’s respect for what he was becoming to the Jewish community, and not just in America. Around the world, he was seen as something special, important, a symbol. At 6’4”, he was movie-star good-looking, and there was a sense that he was decent, worth respecting. He was very close to his family. He was also part of the team for Detroit, not just a stand-alone star. As one of the other players takes great pride in pointing out, “That infield got more runs in one season than any other infield ever. 452. I expect someone someday may break that record, but they’re going to have to have a lot of power to do it.” They ended up besting the Yankees for the pennant and moving on to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Detroit went crazy celebrating, and the men of the Tigers were treated like royalty in their hometown. The story is told of Dizzy Dean taunting Greenberg before a game, calling him “Mo” over and over, short for Moses, an obvious slur. Greenberg paid no attention, though, and channeled his energy into his play, hitting 7 RBIs for the Series instead of hitting Dean. In the end, the Cardinals took the series, and Greenberg traces a pivotal play he believes he screwed up. It’s self-effacing, without a trace of arrogance.
He’d be entirely justified in any arrogance shown, though. He was treated as “the emperor of the Bronx” when he was home between seasons, a hero, “the Messiah.” They won another Pennant, then faced the Chicago Cubs down for the 1935 Series. They were ruthless with their taunts. One player yelled, “Throw him a porkchop! He can’t hit that!” prompting ump George Moriarty to halt the game and warn the Cubs officially. Actor Michael Moriarty shows up to talk about his grandfather’s actions, and Matthau shows up again to talk about how Greenberg took that anger and “just hit that porkchop out of the ballpark.” A broken wrist sidelined him for the last half of the Series, though, and it’s rough watching him sit it out, just another spectator like Joe Lewis, Detroit’s “Brown Bomber,” who we briefly glimpse in the stands. Even though they win the Series, Hank’s celebration is tempered by feeling like he wasn’t part of the victory, even after winning MVP for the League by unanimous vote. Part of the reason for this is because he genuinely felt a responsibility to the Jewish Americans who looked up to him. He took the time to respond personally to letters, like the one from the girl who proposed marriage and got a sweet letter back explaining that he “wasn’t ready.” He broke the same wrist and had to miss much of the following season, compounding that frustration. It’s amazing when you look at a newsreel about baseball in 1937 to see how many of the game’s greats were playing at that moment. Di Maggio, Greenberg, and Iron Lou Gehrig, who was one of Greenberg’s early heroes as a young player.
Documentaries like this are certainly not groundbreakers stylistically. A good director becomes invisible, and all we’re aware of as we watch, hopefully, is this great story unfolding in front of us. THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG is endlessly entertaining, and you can’t help but watch once you’ve begun. There’s such a wealth of material available that never once do we feel like there’s something we’re missing, like there’s something they’re not showing us. We’re never just told something. There’s always voice-overs from Greenberg or his family or other players to fill something out, always archival footage of a particular play.
I’m not going to detail each of the ups and downs of his career, his various records held or almost hold, his personal life. That’s why you should see the film. You should see it because of how charming Greenberg is in the film clips of him. You should see it because of what a great story it is about predjudice in this country. You should see it because of the clever use of all sorts of pop culture clips from movies and radio shows and music throughout. You should see it because this is that rarity: a film that simply makes you feel good. Watching him face each new challenge is inspirational.
That’s not to say there’s not disturbing material here. As 1938 stretches on, there are Bund rallies in the US, and Hitler’s filthy influence begins to manifest in some Americans. Greenberg became even more overtly a symbol, since he stood in defiance of all the stereotypes about the Jews. He began to hit his home runs with thoughts of Hitler in mind. When the Tigers asked him to consider a shift from first base to left field to make room for a new player, Hank didn’t complain. He moved to left field, and he had to retrain himself, managing to do so against all logic. In 1940, Rudy York and other new blood helped put them back in the World Series, this time against the Cincinnati Reds. The Tigers were by this time routinely stealing signals, using an elaborate system of signals to give Greenberg and the other batters tips as to what would be thrown. And the film just keeps on coming, with great material about WWII, Hank’s life after the war, yet another World Series in 1945, and on to his hall of fame induction. This is a great tribute to a guy who genuinely seems to deserve the name “sports hero,” someone who lived his life with a sense of purpose that guided him to be incredible in a quiet and consistent way. Like Muhammad Ali, Hank Greenberg is great as an athlete in equal measure to the degree that he is great as a human being, as a soul on a journy to define life through good works and constant effort. Many fans say modern baseball is nowhere near as great as it was in its golden age, and if that’s true, that’s in large part because giants walked the earth in those days, legends, and after seeing this film, there’s no doubt Hank Greenberg was one of them.
The Fox DVD features such added materials as commenatary by the filmmaker, additional interview material that is just as interesting as what we see in the film, a bio and stats for Greenberg, the trailer, and subtitles in English, Spanish, and, yes, Hebrew. It’s available today.
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Oct. 17, 2001, 5:14 a.m. CST
This combined with the release of 61* on DVD, has cemented the place of Baseball in American Folklore. For a game to have the momentous effect as this, is unwaiverable, except to the select few.... those being the fans of BASKETBALL.
Oct. 18, 2001, 2:30 a.m. CST
by Lt. Torello
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