If the point of "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is lost on the viewer, then history itself put the writing on the wall when the owner of the Detroit Tigers misunderstood the meaning of an old photograph of Greenberg and traded his star to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the 1947 season. Greenberg's last season in the baseball was Jackie Robinson's first, and Greenberg was in the National League to witness it first hand. Not surprisingly, Greenberg was one of the few opposing ball players to offer Robinson encouragement in breaking baseball's color line. But then, as this 1999 documentary proved repeatedly, no white player in the history of the game had been subjected to the abuse Greenberg suffered because his was Jewish. Without a doubt Robinson suffered more, maybe even more that first season than Greenberg his entire career. But this documentary also shows that Greenberg was as important to the American Jewish community as Jackie was to African Americans.
I remembered that Greenberg was the first person to win the MVP award at two different positions and that in 1935 he had 100 R.B.I.'s at the break and was not selected for the All-Star team (Manager Mickey Cochrane did not want to be accused of playing favorites with someone from his own team and picked Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx instead). But what I really picked up from this documentary was how good Greenberg made the Detroit Tigers during his career. If you look at his career batting statistics you will see that Greenberg played eight full seasons and batted in over 100 runs seven times for the Tigers between 1933 and 1946 (several seasons were lost to injury and military service). The Tigers played in the World Series in 1934, 1935, 1940, and 1945, and Greenberg was the common denominator for those teams. You will be hard pressed to find a major league baseball player with that sort of success ratio since Greenberg's day outside of New York Yankees like Berra, Ford, Mantle, and Jeter.
Writer-director Aviva Kempner balances Greenberg's playing career with the impact he had as baseball's first Jewish star. There are some clips from an old interview with Greenberg, who died in 1986. But most of the talking heads are from contemporary clips of Greenberg's family, former teammates, reporters, and lifelong fans. The last category are the most interesting, because it includes not only famous people like Walter Matthau and Alan Dershowitz, but ordinary fans, including several rabbis and a self-admitted "groupie." These are the people with whom "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" resonates the most. Clearly this is a documentary which will be of interest to baseball fans but also to those interested in the story of a true American hero.
Final Note: The documentary does not point out that in 1938 when Greenberg hit 58 home runs, two short of Babe Ruth's record, he hit two balls into a screen that were ground rule doubles; however, that screen was not there when Ruth played in 1927
have to admit it, before watching Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, I really didn't know that much about Hank Greenberg. I of course had heard his name mentioned as 'one of the greats' and I had heard that he was one of the first openly Jewish ballplayers to play baseball, but I really knew very little about his life story. As with many great documentaries, after watching Life and Times of Hank Greenberg I now feel like I really know the whole Hank Greenberg story, and it is a pretty amazing story.
Greenberg played at a time where there simply weren't openly Jewish ballplayers. And while Hank wasn't a deeply religious person, he didn't (like some) conceal the fact he was Jewish. Hank Greenberg is known both for standing up in the face of bigotry as well as being an amazing ballplayer. Playing for the Detroit Tigers for the majority of his career, Hank Greenberg was the first player in the American League to receive the MVP award twice. In 1938 he came amazingly close to breaking Babe Ruth's single season home run record 23 years before it was broken by Roger Marris.
Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a loving tribute to a man who didn't let bigotry get in the way of his love for baseball and never stopped giving it his all. The documentary was produced over the course of 12 years and features interviews with Hank (who is no longer living), as well as many of the ball players and children of the people he played with. Watching a movie like Life and Times of Hank Greenberg really gives you a glimpse into what makes baseball America's pasttime and something that has the ability to create legends. If you're a baseball fan I'd highly recommend you check out Life and Times of Hank Greenberg - it's a fantastic documentary.
on February 5, 2002
I grew up in a Jewish household in the 1960s, well after Greenberg's playing days but he still was an icon for me. The film touches on a lot of points: biography, sports in America, institutionalized anti-Semitism and racism. Yet the viewer is never overwhelmed; this film really evokes a man, an era and a unique look at a unique American legend. My only quibble: I wish it had been longer and delved into Greenberg's efforts at desegregating professional baseball after his playing days.
This film doesn't back even a quarter inch from being a documentary of a great Jewish ballplayer. The opening theme song is "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Yiddish. It sets the tone for the whole film in perfect fashion.
One of my professors in grad school explained to me how he changed his name as a grad student in the 1930s in order to "pass" as what we would now call WASP in order to escape the "Jew quotas" placed against the hiring of too many Jewish professors. Today we forget just how anti-Semitic much of the United States was before World War II and beyond. As this documentary points out, this was especially true in Detroit, where America's premiere industrial anti-Semite, Henry Ford, held sway. The film mentions but does not expand upon Ford's anti-Semitic activity, which included paying for the printing and distribution of the wretched forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," one of the most racist rags ever penned. This provides the social and historical background for this marvelous documentary history of the great Hank Greenberg, the first professional baseball star to openly embrace his ethnic background. He thus served as the Jackie Robinson of the Jews in the thirties. But there was a slight difference. Though African-Americans were discriminated against and subjugated to terrible racial injustice, there was a sense in which they were undeniably American. Jews, however, at the time enjoyed an almost outsider status, not really Americans, more in the nature of displaced Europeans. Greenberg, however, was not just a Jewish sports star, but a star in the great American game of baseball. His Jewish identity is central to the film, from the recounting of his earlier years to the shocking film footage of Nazi rallies in New York in the late 1930s to Greenberg's being drafted (and reenlisted) for military service in World War II. And as commentator Alan Dershowitz points out, he was the anti-thesis of what Hitler said it was possible for a Jew to be. He was the living proof of the lies of Hitler.
One of the many jokes in AIRPLANE! is when someone asks for some light reading, and is given a slender pamphlet entitled GREAT JEWISH SPORTS STARS. Greenberg is one of the great athletes to give the lie to such a conception. He would reign as the great Jewish baseball player until the emergence of Sandy Koufax twenty years later. What is striking about both players is that they were both handsome, eloquent, and great gentlemen. Both men were great heroes to Jews across America, but interestingly neither was especially religious.
As a baseball fan, I really enjoyed a lot of the baseball lore that comes through in the film. For instance, I knew that Greenberg and Gehringer were a great twosome in the infield, but I was unaware that one season the infield knocked in more runs than any infield in baseball history. Or that a new and controversial glove that the poor fielding Greenberg debuted one season would be finally approved by the league and eventually lead to the modern first baseman's glove. Or that Greenberg was the first $100,000 player. Most of all, perhaps, is all the great game footage. Most baseball fans know Greenberg by sight in a photo, but few of us would recognize him from the way he swings his bat. But now perhaps I would. There is also the fantastic segment in which Greenberg in film from the 1980s explains how the Tigers were able in late 1940 to steal the signs of the other team by placing a minor league coach in the stands with binoculars, and signaling by which hand he held them what pitch was coming.
Although in many ways Greenberg enjoyed a relatively short career, shortened by injuries and by military service in what would be the peak years for most power hitters (the peak for most home run hitters comes between the ages of 30 and 35, the very years Greenberg was in the military), he enjoyed by any standard a remarkable career. Because of the war years he lost any chance at 500 career homers, but he led the Tigers to several remarkable seasons, with four pennant winners and two world championships, all to go with his two MVP awards.
A bit of trivia partially revealed in the film. In the 1935 World Series umpire George Moriarty stopped the game to order the Cubs to stop making anti-Semitic remarks directed at Greenberg. The film then briefly interviews actor Michael Moriarty, the umpire's grandson, who himself starred in one of the great baseball films ever made, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, starring Moriarty and a very, very young Robert DeNiro.
on June 25, 2004
I think this is a truly exceptional documentary on many different levels. First, it tells the story of one of the best baseball players in history, who often goes unrecognized for his skills. I consider myself a big baseball fan, especially in the history of baseball and stars of the past. Yet before this movie, I knew very little about Hank Greenberg. Despite being one of the best hitters at that time, Greenberg isn't talked about very often. This DVD gets his story out, and shows how dominant of a ball player he was.
A major reason that Greenberg is often overlooked when people talk about great ball players is that he spent many of his prime years serving the war effort and was away from baseball. This has kept his lifetime stats and therefore his notoriety down.
Another major reason this movie was so good was how it showed Greenberg's career in baseball as a Jewish baseball player. Although his abuse was less than what Jackie Robinson would later recieve, he still did suffer abuse. Also, he was watched and revered by the Jewish community. He was respected and admired as a Jewish man who was just as good as other American ball players, giving Jews a sense of pride. One of the best parts of the film is when the viewer learns that Greenberg talked to Jackie Robinson about playing in baseball as a minority, and gave him support.
Whether he was helping Detroit win the World Series, serving his country in the war, being a symbol of pride for the Jewish population, or giving Jackie Robinson advice, we can see that he meant a lot to a lot of people. This is a remarkable story about a remarkable man, through the lens of baseball. If you like baseball and baseball history, this movie is a must-see.
on March 16, 2002
A well produced documentary about one of baseball's greats. He overcame bigotry and paved the way for the great Black ball players who succeeded him. Perhaps it was size or perhaps his demeanor which he used to overcome rampant anti-semitism of the time, but he wanted one thing...to be a great baseball player and make in the majors, or the "show" as it was called then.
As the film portrays, he was a great individual, and certainly a patriot, given that he gave up his career early to enlist in the WW2 war effort.
The great mystery left unsettled was did anti semitism play a part in coming so close to Babe Ruth's 60 home run record (59 home runs) that the opposing teams wouldn't pitch to him when he was within striking distance with a few games yet to play.
A great documentary.
on November 24, 2001
I wasn't expecting a documentary of such quality. Admittedly I didn't know much about the subject, but after 90 minutes I'll be paying more attention on my next visit to the Hall of Fame.
Hank Greenberg paved the way for Jackie Robinson to make it into the majors. People today don't realize how much antisemitism existed in America before WWII. This movie shows how Hank overcame it with grace and dignity while building a stellar career. Makes today's baseball stars look pale in comparsion. Don't rewind or stop the movie until you see and hear ALL the credits- you'll miss a lot!
We have here a documentary on a tall handsome superstar baseball player who also honored his religion's holy days by refusing to play on those occasions.
In THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG (1998) we learn how this Bronx-born star first baseman for the Detroit Tigers missed out of one of sports biggest honors, the baseball home run crown. In 1938, Hank was approaching the 60 mark held by Babe Ruth for eleven seasons. It's been said that the other teams conspired against him, and for the last five games of the season Greenberg was intentionally walked or thrown impossible to hit junk. Forever after Hank called such charges "crazy talk," even though stats bear out that during the waning days of the '38 season he walked an average of 20% of the time.
Whatever the reality, Greenberg came "this" close to matching the Babe. His 59th dinger was cancelled out when the game was called because of rain. One of Hank's records that still stands is 183 RBIs, highest ever for an AL righthander. (He also was the first to ever hit a homer into Yankee Stadium's center field bleachers.)
Also covered are the Tigers four big post-seasons, 1934, '35, '40 and '45, when they lost, then won, then lost, then won again the World Series.
Until America's involvement in WWII, Greenberg was subject to the sort of bigotry that Jackie Robinson endured in the late 1940s. As the only Jew in the game he was called every kind of name by opposing players and spectators, even in Detroit which was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. Yet Hank consistently performed at a high level. His lifetime batting average was .313, and he might've reached 500 HRs and 1800 RBIs if not for four years of WWII military service.
In this 90 minute program a wealth of vintage snapshots and footage, plus related movie clips are interspersed with commentary from Walter Matthau, Alan Dershowitz, Sen. Carl Levin, Michael Moriarty, Shirley Povich, Ernie Harwell, Dick Shaap, Maury Povich and members of Hank's family. Modern clips of Greenberg's sports celeb contemporaries include Ralph Kiner, Virgil Trucks, Bob Feller, Hal Neuhouser, Birdie Tebbets, Elden Auker, Barney McCosky, "Flea" Clifton, Billy Rogell, Harry Eisenstat and George Kell, plus archive comments from Greenberg, who died in 1986.
This is a most interesting show, particularly for fans of baseball's golden age.
on June 28, 2008
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg may be the best baseball documentary ever. Not as thorough, long or epic as ken Burns' Baseball from 1994, L&T of H.G. is a wonderful vision of a player who's legacy is fast fading from the era still associated with DiMaggio, Gehrig and Ruth. His ascension to baseball immortality is partly due to his being the first great Jewish ball player. Besides Sandy Koufax, Greenberg can easily be considered the greatest Jewish player ever. He was the winner of two MVP's and two Championships with the Tigers in 1935 and 1945. Greenberg lead the Tigers to their first series appearance in 25 years in 1934, which they lost to St. Louis. He also lead them to a series in 1940, losing to Cincinnati. He served in WWII for three years and returned in 1945 to hit a home run in his first game, and lead the Tigers to a World Series victory. As it goes, his Tigers beat the Cubs in both of his Worls Series victories.
According to the doc, Greenberg was one of the first ballplayers to enlist and consequently return from the war.
What works about the film is the relaxed nature of Greenberg, seen in archived interviews (he died in 1986 at 75) and the interviews with fellow players and people who grew up idolizing him. Greenberg seems to have taken his success in amazing stride, assuming a responsibility he may or may not have wanted for Jewish Americans. No doubt his success as a player, like Jackie Robinson, who came into the league during Greenberg's last year, provided cushion for the horrors both experienced from fans and fellow players alike.
Edited with these interviews is excellent footage of games and newsreels, which together illuminate the times and by extension Greenberg's impact.
The film concludes with information on Greenberg's post career, including an ownership and management interest in the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. His time with the Indians saw the largest accumulation of black players yet in MLB history, a championship (their last as of June 2008) in 1948 and a pennant in 1954.
This will play terrifically in a school for kids from elementary through high school, as part of history, sports and cultural studies.
on November 14, 2008
I've seen this promoted many times as a movie for Jewish people because it is about their first big baseball idol, Hank Greenberg. A lot of the material here deals with how big an idol Hank was to all the Jews in Amercia back then. I found that interesting, but I watched it simply because I love baseball, especially the "old days" and am thrilled to see footage of any Major League baseball games and stars from the first half of the 20th century. If there is a human-interest behind the diamond heroics, all the better!
Greenberg was a likable guy and I enjoyed seeing him talk here and there from an interview he did in the early '80s, talking about his career. He isn't a braggart, but he's not that modest, either. He knew he was very good.
He didn't make excuses either when he didn't accomplish he wanted, like hitting 60 homers one season. Sadly, some of the commentators on this DVD like attorney Alan Dershowitz are not so unbiased.
I enjoyed not only seeing Greenberg smash the ball but witnessing some of his famous and not-so-famous teammates in footage, too, and also interviewed in their older age - guys like Charlie Gehringer, a great second baseman on Hank's winning teams in Detroit.
I especially liked what Greenberg said near the end of this long documentary, something I wish more athletes of today would say (and believe): "I"ve tried to pattern my life on the fact that I'm out there in the limelight, so to speak, and that there are a lot of kids out there. If I set a good example for them, maybe it will, in some way, affect their lives."
Amen to that.