..

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Aviva Kempner
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  October 16, 2001

Film ***

The original “Hammerin’ Hank” was not Aaron, but Greenberg, the man who in the late 1930s broke professional baseball’s faith barrier by becoming its first Jewish star.  He was loved by his community, hated by many others.  He wasn’t active in his faith, but he observed its traditions as an example to Jews across the country.  He built his career with hard work and dedication over natural talent, and left a Hall of Fame legacy that still stirs imaginations to this day.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a modest but inspiring documentary film by Aviva Kempner, who set out to explore A) what it was like to be a renowned Jew against a backdrop of severe anti-Semitism, and B) what he accomplished on and off the field with his courage and heroics.

Greenberg, at age 23, led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series against the famed St. Louis “Gashouse Gang”.  They didn’t win, but their year established the Tigers as a serious threat to the dominant Yankee dynasty of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, as well as making Greenberg a household name.

His work ethic was the stuff of legends, as associates recall with fondness how he would take batting practice until his hands were blistered, or how he would stand in front of a mirror for hours at a time trying to perfect every little nuance of his swing.  It was said he wasn’t a man of grace; at six-foot-four, he was a large, physical presence, and neither the fastest runner nor the best fielder.  When he swung and missed, his body would spin like a top.  When he connected, it took a long, long time for the ball to come back down.

But his storybook career on the field was often met with hatred and bigotry off of it.  Racial slurs from fans and opposing players became a part of his life.  One player even recalls a leadoff hitter being instructed to slide back into first base as hard as he could just to injure Greenberg!  But perhaps no year summed up the odds against him than the year he made the first serious attempt to break the Babe’s 60 home run season record.  With 58 blasts under his belt and three games to go, no pitcher gave him anything to hit for the remainder of the year.

Greenberg would prove his character, however, when he dropped out of baseball and volunteered for the Army in time for America’s entry into World War II.  He had often said he felt every home run he had hit was a home run against Hitler, but now, he was going to fight the Nazis for real.

This documentary, told via plenty of vintage footage, modern interviews with friends, fans, teammates and sports writers, is a balanced and serviceable biography, taking both the highlights and lowlights of Greenberg’s career and life with equal stride.  To focus more on one would be to diminish the other…Kempner handles her material faithfully and judiciously, yet with a fan’s appreciation. 

Hank Greenberg was a hero to many, and his accomplishments helped those in the Jewish communities to walk a little taller and feel a little prouder.  Few sports stars, despite their talents and numbers, can lay claim to that.

Video **

With its mix of old and new footage, plus the fact that the overall picture seems modestly budgeted, the look of the film on DVD is serviceable, but not much more.  The film stocks used don’t present the brightest colors or the most detail; contrast is created with a slight amount of grain from time to time.  It’s very watchable, to be sure, but won’t be considered reference quality by any.

Audio **

The stereo mix is likewise very suitable if unspectacular.  There’s not a lot of dynamic range here or real use of front-stage panning effects, but neither are particularly missed.  Some open mike noise is occasionally audible during some of the modern interview segments, but nothing distracting.

Features ***

The disc boasts some nice extras, including an informative commentary track from Aviva Kempner, who talks about Greenberg, the interviews, and the making of the film with warmth and fondness.  The disc also includes additional interviews not included within the body of the documentary, a printed bio on Greenberg, plus his career stats (year by year and totals), along with director’s notes and an original trailer.

Summary:

In a world where baseball has become a game for spoiled millionaires and self-serving egoists, it’s nice to sit back and enjoy a picture like The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, and remember when a sports star could be more than a great athlete…he could be a genuine hero as well.  Greenberg’s legacy lives on decades after his playing years were over, and continues to stand as one of the brightest spots in the long history of America’s favorite pastime.