BY MICHAEL BERICK
The Jackie Robinson bio-movie 42 has been one of the spring’s bigger hits; however, it isn’t the only movie out now that explores baseball’s history within a larger societal context. The documentary, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (originally released in 2000 and now out with a second disc of bonus material) is more than just a profile of the baseball great Hank Greenberg.
Made with affection and intelligence, the documentary details Greenberg’s baseball prowess (he was a two-time American League MVP and an All-Star in five of his nine seasons: however, filmmaker Aviva Kempner also shows the bigger picture. Besides being a rare Jewish-American sports hero, he was career coincided with the rise of Hitler and World War II.
Throughout the film, prominent Jews (such as Alan Dershowitz, Walter Matthau and Sen. Carl Levin) talk about how Greenberg was a source of pride and inspiration for several generations of American Jews – many of whom were still assimilating into American culture. Although Greenberg didn’t play up his religion, he didn’t hide it either. One of the film’s key segments deals with his public dilemmas over whether to play on the Jewish High Holidays.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from the anti-Semitism that Greenberg encountered. Some of it came in the form of just plain ignorance – his Detroit Tiger teammate Jo Jo White once asked Greenberg if he had horns. Greenberg also was the target of more intense anti-Semitism. Opposing teams (perhaps just wanting to rattle a star player) frequently hurled verbal abuse at him.
The actor Michael Moriarty (who coincidentally starred in the great baseball film Bang The Drum Slowly) shares a story about his grandfather, the longtime umpire, George Moriarty, who penalized the Chicago Cubs for shouting anti-Semitic slurs at Greenberg during the 1935 World Series. In an interesting anecdote found in the bonus material, Moriarty also reveals how Gilda Radnor once told him that her dad was among the Detroit area businessmen who offered to pay the fine that Major League Baseball leveled on Moriarty for his silencing the Cubs’ slurs.
It is a particularly timely moment for this documentary to be reissued since Greenberg and Robinson’s stories intersect during Greenberg’s final season and Robinson’s first. In 1947, Greenberg was traded to Pittsburgh in the National League (Life and Times also reveals this interesting baseball trade tale). During a game with the Dodgers, Greenberg gave Robinson some encouraging words, which Robinson publicly mentioned as being very helpful to him. Greenberg also admitted that the prejudice he faced wasn’t as severe what Robinson’s, but it certainly made him empathetic to what Robinson had to go through.
What director Aviva Kempner accomplishes here is quite wonderful. Not only has she celebrated Greenberg’s baseball stardom but she also places it in a larger societal context. While the footage shows some age, Kempner did a great job assembling an impressive lineup of interviewees, through both archival footage and her own interviewing. It is especially fortunate that she got to film so many of Greenberg’s teammates and peers when she did, since so have now passed away. Life and Times will obviously be a hit with baseball fans; however, this documentary should also interest the casual fans as it touches on larger issues within American culture. And how can you not resist a baseball film that includes the Marx Brothers’ singing “Take Me Out To The Baseball”?