The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
What makes a sports hero? Simply put, it’s winning. Which means that new stars are made every time athletes meet in competition. But there are occasions when a sports figure becomes a cultural icon, when a throwaway song line like “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?” hits a collective nerve.
Hank Greenberg may already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but in her wonderful debut documentary, Aviva Kempner seeks to restore his place in America’s social history. Greenberg’s athletic prowess is well-documented. Playing for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1940, and for two more years following service in World War II, he led the team to the World Series four times (they won twice). His individual records include topping the American League for home runs three times, and four times for RBIs. In 1938, Hammerin’ Hank hit 58 home runs, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record.
As Kempner points out, Greenberg had already been facing a steady stream of anti-Semitic heckling, and his decision to observe Jewish holidays during a playoff season was front-page news. So his achievements serve as a symbolic counterpoint to Adolf Hitler’s ban on Jewish athletes in the Olympic Games, and the tidal wave of hate crimes that commenced with Krystallnacht.
If all Kempner did was draw these two parallel lines, she would have made a successful documentary. She goes beyond the obvious to create a well-rounded portrait of Greenberg, who embodied quiet strength and dignity (one of the film’s most eloquent moments finds him crossing paths with then-rookie Jackie Robinson).
The most warm, lively, and often humorous responses come from Greenberg’s fans, whose memories are still powerful enough to transform seasoned politicians like Carl and Sander Levin into star-eyed little boys again. Former Detroiter Aviva Kempner infuses her portrait of Hank Greenberg with such joie de vivre that it’s a delight for the already converted and non-sports fans alike.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on July 21, 2000 by Cowboy Booking International
First published in the Metro Times.