Hammering Hank

Documentary a compelling look at a Jewish baseball star

Opens Sept. 1

If there are subjects that reliably provide rich fodder for the tales of oral histories, they're baseball and Jewish culture. Just as the national pastime naturally lends itself to yarns involving the icons of the game, so do the oral traditions of Jewish life frequently shed light on the struggles and rewards of the American dream. Find a point where the two topics converge, and you'd be half way to a fine documentary. Aviva Kempner does just that with The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, taking the career of "the Moses of Baseball" and presenting it with more than enough wit and panache to drive it home.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg has been playing on the film festival circuit and in other cities for more than a year, but it has felicitous timing for its Atlanta debut. It hits town to coincide with the nomination of Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman as vice presidential candidate, and it's fascinating to contrast the issues of Jewish-American assimilation in Greenberg's time with those of today. There's even a quote from limelight-seeking superlawyer Alan Dershowitz about how, when he was a kid, he was convinced that Hank Greenberg would be the first Jewish president of the United States.

Had he run for office, Greenberg's story would make a great campaign biography. The son of immigrants, he grew up in Brooklyn with a passion for baseball, despite the conventional wisdom that Jews don't become ballplayers. With determination and discipline reminiscent of the rise of Tiger Woods, "Hammerin' Hank" went on to become a celebrated first baseman and, later, a left fielder in his prime playing for the Detroit Tigers beginning in 1934. Standing 6-foot, 4-inches, he not only struck the pose of a sports hero, but proved a genuine role model off the field as well.

Though Greenberg soon won the heart of Detroit, the state of Michigan was not the most hospitable of new homes, being the base for both virulent anti-Semite Henry Ford and rabble-rousing broadcaster Father Coughlin. Unlike Jewish athletes before him, Greenberg made no secret of his faith, and it became an issue for him as to whether he could play in games on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For the former, rabbinical scholars found a pretext to allow him to participate and newspapers subsequently blared "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play."

Kempner fluidly edits a massive amount of sepia-toned news footage and other material to bring edge-of-the-bleachers excitement to accounts of pre-WWII pennant races, and she spins droll anecdotes such as the way the Tigers cracked another team's pitching signals. Along with Greenberg's surviving family, interviewees include colorful figures like Walter Matthau, Maury Povich, Congressman Sander Levin and his brother Carl Levin, actor Michael Moriarty (grandson of an umpire at the time) and a full roster of bespectacled old-timers who look like they have the sports almanac memorized.

The filmmaker and her sources show a consistent love affair with baseball without flinching from the sport's uglier sides, touching on racism as well as religious prejudice. In 1938, Greenberg fell two runs short of beating Babe Ruth's home-run record, and the anti-Semitism he faced then is paralleled to the racist reaction to Hank Aaron's successful challenge. Also, Greenberg's last year in the major leagues, 1947, was African-American pioneer Jackie Robinson's first season, and a friendly encounter emphasizes how Robinson would be even more vilified than Greenberg.

Athletes rarely prove to be introspective as individuals, and interviews with Greenberg (recorded before his death in 1986) don't delve deeply into how facing prejudice affected him. One commentator notes that in Greenberg's time, ethnic slurs were hurled against the backgrounds of any player, "But there were a lot of Germans or Poles playing baseball, and he was the only Jew."

But Greenberg does provide many small but illuminating details about his character and the way he thought. It's especially charming when it discusses Greenberg's attachment to Runs Batted In, the driving in of men in the scoring position. A friend recalls, "Women, food, home runs, they were fine. But RBIs were the thing he lived for." Greenberg's mythos is enlarged when, after being a baseball MVP, he serves a lengthy stint in the armed forces during WWII (although he didn't come close to actually fighting Nazis).

From the 21st century vantage point, it's especially fun to contrast how the game was covered then with now, particularly in the use of language. Greenberg picks up the nickname "Hankus Pankus" while Detroit, being the home of the Tigers, is repeatedly called "Bengal Town." A headline may announce the "Gladsome Details" of the latest win. Silent or still photography is often more revealing than the awkwardly staged newsreel material, which makes our modern jocks in Nike spots look like Shakespearean thespians.

You might fear that Ken Burns' 18-hour documentary Baseball would have exhausted the subject, including as it did about a zillion different versions of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." But Kempner consistently comes up with engaging variations, opening the film with a Yiddish version of the song and closing it (a bit superfluously) with the Marx Brother's use of the tune in A Night at the Opera. Kempner also interweaves clips from baseball movies like Pride of the Yankees and such recent TV series as "Brooklyn Bridge."

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg might remind you of the joke in the movie Airplane! where a passenger asks for some "light reading" and is given a leaflet called "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." The film, though, proves light only in the sense of being graceful. Kempner's historical documentary proves as compelling as any modern action film, and in showing Greenberg's triumph over the darker forces of the game and the country, only compounds his legend.