Too often baseball players are reduced to statistics, hollow numbers that resonate with the fetishist who drifts off to sleep counting home runs and career batting averages. Baseball demands such precision: It's a team sport, yes, but ultimately it's man against man, record against record, history against history. Look no further than 1998's home-run race, which pitted Mark McGwire against Sammy Sosa as they cat-and-moused it toward Roger Maris's 61-homer record. Never in the history of any sport had so much hoopla surrounded so little action -- a slow, triumphant jog around the base paths. By the likes of sports journalists and casual fans, McGwire will forever be celebrated as an American hero, at least until the next slugger comes along to hit 71 homers. And for doing what, exactly? Hitting a round ball with a round bat out of play 70 times. Thrilling? Yes. Heroic? Look, you've got to be kidding.
Sixty-one years ago a Detroit Tigers ball player by the name of Henry Benjamin Greenberg came within three homers of breaking Babe Ruth's then-60-homer record. His chase of history also was the stuff of which hoopla and hype were made; the newspapers and radio announcers kept count, tallied every pitch, compared every game against Ruth's record run. But, it is said by those who lived back then, Hank Greenberg's home-run chase was not celebrated by all those who kept close watch. Plenty of baseball fans did not want Greenberg to catch Ruth, to surpass the legend. A Jew had no business owning such an American record, deserved no place in the sport's history books. Greenberg, to his credit, never believed that, despite playing ball in one of the most anti-Semitic cities in the United States, one run by the hateful Henry Ford. Perhaps Hank Greenberg wouldn't allow himself to believe it. I'm not bitter at all, he said, a few years before his death in 1986. What a thrill to even have a chance -- to vie for history, he meant.
But Greenberg's roles as baseball great and Jewish hero were never separated; he was forever known as the first Jew in the major leagues, even though other Jews came before him and played under goyish names. He was, as filmmaker Aviva Kempner often reminds us in her touching, trenchant documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the Jackie Robinson of the Jews -- the man who withstood hatred on his way to becoming one of the game's best first basemen and power hitters. (The big difference was that after games, Greenberg could go wherever he wanted; Robinson, living in a whites-only world, could not.) Greenberg wore his Jewishness on his sleeve; he never hid his Romanian background or pretended to be a Gentile in order to disappear into the crowd.
And Kempner, who grew up in Detroit after Greenberg's heyday (he played there from 1934 to 1946) and spent more than a decade on this film, makes no attempt to separate the Jew from the Tiger. To her, one thing defined the other -- the American League MVP who didn't play on Yom Kippur, the target for anti-Semites who threw pork chops at him, the Moses ... the messiah who proudly led Jews into the promised land of baseball. Through interviews with the likes of former ball players Charlie Gehringer and Bob Feller, sports columnist Ira Berkow (who helped Greenberg pen his now out-of-print autobiography), and long-time fans Alan Dershowitz and the late Walter Matthau among so many others, Kempner turns Greenberg into a bona fide hero -- or, as Dershowitz breathlessly refers to him, the most important Jew who lived during the 1930s.
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In the end The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is precisely what a documentary ought to be: engaging and revelatory, turning forgotten footnotes and discarded minutiae into the stuff of riveting drama and poignant laughs, which is an especially notable achievement, since Greenberg didn't live a particularly difficult life. (He was baseball's first $100,000 player; he married into the Gimbel's department store fortune; and during World War II, he was more of a goodwill ambassador than a soldier -- and he played baseball, for God's sake.) The film begins on the streets of the Bronx, where young boys played stickball beneath storefronts emblazoned with Hebrew letters, and it ends with Mandy Patinkin singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame in Yiddish. In between are the film clips, the personal memories, and the loving attention to detail bestowed upon a hero by a woman out to rescue Greenberg from history's trash heap.