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'Hank Greenberg': The Inspiring Tale of a True Tiger

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2000


    'The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg' Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish baseball star. (Cowboy Booking)
As the movie began, a familiar tune floated out.

God, I thought, how many baseball documentaries have begun with "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"?

But then I thought: In Yiddish?

The movie, of course, is Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," which tells of the New York-born giant (but never a New York Giant; rather a Detroit Tiger) who stood as a mighty Jewish American hero during his great years in the 1930s, when Hitler was rising in Europe and native-born antisemites like Father Coughlin were rotting the airwaves.

Hammerin' Hank--also known as Hankus Pankus and Henry--stood 6 feet 4 and had abnormally long arms and thick wrists. He had Goliath's body, but David's heroic personality. (In 1945 he hit a last-day grand slam to win the pennant, and this was immediately after four exhausting years of Army duty.) In his prime, he was all muscle, sinew, reflex and hard work. When he stood tall and straight at the plate, he appeared to be one of the gods of baseball. And he was: When he got it going, he unlimbered that Wheaties-box classic long swing and more often than not got great wood on the ball. As one of the witnesses in Kempner's film recalls, his shots didn't leave the park in a hurry. They rose in gigantic arcs and fell with the fury of an artillery shell. He hit 331 of them.

Is this film necessary because Greenberg has been forgotten and is there a casual antisemitism at work under the forgetting? Well, possibly, though Kempner never makes that case explicitly. Still, it's there, insistent, under the archival shots, the views of Tiger Stadium, that ramshackle girder work of men in straw hats and ties smoking cigarettes with every breath they took while watching the game.

It's true that Greenberg isn't remembered with the same fervor as the great DiMaggio, a rough contemporary, though he only hit for a little less average (.313 vs. DiMag's .325) and a few fewer homers (the 331 vs. 361) over a similarly war-interrupted 13-year career. You could even point out that Greenberg's slugging percentage at .605 was higher than DiMaggio's .579, but since I have no idea what a slugging percentage is, perhaps I'd better not push the point too far.

Clearly, other things than pure hitting stats counted big in the memory game. Possibly Kempner is right to suggest that America was a little unsure about a Jewish hero, even as late as the '30s and '40s. But there are so many other factors: Then as now, New York was the big town, and all the other towns--like Detroit--not so big; that may have magnified DiMag and shrunk Hank. And DiMag was graceful as a gazelle while Hammerin' Hank looked like a giraffe when he ran; Joe got a hit in 56 straight games, setting a record that'll never be broken, while Hank merely almost broke the Babe's 60-homer stat, but finished the season at 58. And Joe's greatness came after World War II instead of just before, so it wasn't diminished by the collective intensity of those four furious years. Moreover, Joe had the good sense to marry a doomed blond movie star who slept with President Kennedy instead of a beautiful department store heiress who slept only with her husband. (A witty ex-teammate: "Everybody's future is a gamble, except for Hank's--his was a Gimbel.")

Even if Kempner's deeper point is unprovable, it's nice to have this document, which recalls this super ball player from the mists. The movie, somewhat after the fashion of Ken Burns's slightly more supple and mythological PBS series, is less interested in statistics than in ethos. (The statistics I quote, by the way, are from the Baseball Encyclopedia, not the film, which quotes few statistics.) It's an adroit manipulation of interviews and stock footage, mostly along the lines of establishing not so much what Hammerin' Hank did for himself, but what he meant to American Jews.

Alan Dershowitz and Walter Matthau are two of the witnesses whose boyhoods were dominated by Hank's heroics and who report that his triumphs helped them believe they could be both successful and Jewish at once; they didn't have to mute the one to achieve the other. Others who speak are rabbis and lawyers, fans and teammates, children and Gimbel herself. All of whom seem to agree on one thing: Hank, no matter what value was attached to him by others, was a very decent guy who worked hard and played hard.

Hank himself--he died wealthy and suntanned in 1986--appears from old filmed interviews, and there's such a vitality to him it suggests another theme, which might be called the recovery of a forgotten Jewish past. This is an expression of a recent movement in Jewish history to take pride in the physicality and toughness of the American Jew in the '20s and '30s; there's even a book, by Rich Cohen, called "Tough Jews," which points out that the professions weren't always the destination of young American Jews; there was a time when they yearned to become ballplayers, boxers, even gangsters.

I say this because the mature Hank, his sideburns flecked with gray, his hair full, his face long and strong, his resort wear beautifully tailored, exudes such power and strength it made me think of another tough Jew: Greenberg has something of the charisma and sheer physical beauty of the gangster Bugsy Siegel.

For Jews then, the movie celebrates this strain of strength and heroism in the purely physical realm, and the calm sense of purpose with which to endure the catcalls and provide endless grace under pressure. For the rest of us, it's simpler: It's just a portrait of a hero.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG (95 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and the Cinema Arts) is not rated but contains nothing objectionable.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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