Legendary Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg was a two-time MVP who nearly broke Babe Ruth’s home run record when he hit 58 dingers in the 1938 season. He was just as famous for being Jewish, and for refusing to play on the holy day of Yom Kippur.
To honor baseball’s first Jewish Hall of Famer on the 80th anniversary of his rookie season, the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center is bringing together local filmmaker Aviva Kempner (1998’s “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which is being rereleased this year) and author John Rosengren (the new “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes”) for a screening of excerpts from the film and a discussion of Greenberg’s life and impact on Jews in America. We spoke with Kempner about Greenberg’s legacy.
How did you get so interested in Greenberg?
I grew up in Detroit, and I grew up the daughter of an immigrant Jew. And every Yom Kippur my dad would take us to synagogue for Kol Nidre services [held on the eve of Yom Kippur], I would hear the story about Hank not playing Yom Kippur. I thought Hank Greenberg was part of Kol Nidre service.
Why do you think Jewish people seem so fascinated by Jewish athletes?
Well, I’ll tell ya one of the reasons I made this film, I was sick of always seeing the nebbish on the screen. I grew up with Hank Greenberg as the role model in the home. He was this big, powerful hitter. I think it’s that oftentimes Jews have portrayed themselves as nerds or nebbishes, and an athlete is sort of counter to that. I think it has to do maybe with Jewish self-image.
Why is Greenberg’s story relevant today?
Lessons from the past have to do with lessons from today, in our own lives: integrating new citizens, undocumented workers, not being afraid, diversity. I ended the film with the great Jackie Robinson story because Hank was the one player who went out of his way to really greet Jackie. Because he really knew, from the anti-Semitism, what it meant to face discrimination on the field.
It sounds like such a different time.
People think that baseball players are just these wealthy people you can’t touch or talk to anymore. Well, it used to be a different kind of game. A young kid asked me at a screening, “Was Hank on steroids?” And I almost started crying thinking this is what kids today think, that these players were on steroids. But back then they didn’t get a lot of money. They played for the love of the game.
Hammer Times 4
It turns out the sports world isn’t very creative when it comes to nicknaming Jewish baseball players. Hank Greenberg shares “The Hebrew Hammer” with three others:
Ryan “The Hebrew Hammer” Braun: The Milwaukee Brewers left fielder is a five-time All-Star who was named National League MVP in 2011.
Gabe “The Hebrew Hammer” Kapler: After debuting with the Detroit Tigers in 1998, the outfielder went on to play for the Rangers, Rockies, Red Sox, Brewers (alongside Braun) and Rays.
Al “The Hebrew Hammer” Rosen: He was a four-time All-Star and 1953’s American League MVP for the Cleveland Indians.