Harvey Frommer / Players
Celebrating Hank Greenberg
By Harvey Frommer
Four times he led the American League in home run hitting. In 1938, he blasted 58 - no player had hit more in a season up to that point in time except for Babe Ruth. He starred in the majors for more than a decade and batted .313 for his career.
He missed four and a half years to serve in WWII. He closed out his career in 1947 as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He blasted 25 home runs that season, most of them into a section of the outfield known as "Greenberg Gardens." In 1956, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He passed away 30 years later.
His name was Henry Benjamin Greenberg, but he was better known as Hank Greenberg.
"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a documentary film by Aviva Kempner is a loving and beautifully done tribute to a great player and goes into an in depth treatment about all he had to overcome to prevail.
The film opens with Mandy Patinkin singing a Yiddish rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" while street scenes of young boys playing baseball in the Bronx in the 1930s enter the screen. The son of Romanian immigrants, Greenberg grew up Jewish in the Bronx and went on to star at James Monroe High School.
He began his major league career in Detroit in the mid 1930s - it was a city that had well known anti Semites such as automaker Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, the latter dished out hatred from his pulpit.
But Greenberg at six-foot-four with broad shoulders and big muscles feared no bigot, never backed away - whether it was from a spring training fight on a bus with Detroit pitcher Rip Sewell or an entire Chicago White Sox team.
There was a game in Chicago when Sox players went after Greenberg with religious epithets way beyond the normal. When the game ended, a seething Greenberg went into their clubhouse ready to do battle. He told the White Sox players, "If you got a gut in your body you'll stand up." Of course, nobody did.
Greenberg often acknowledged the insults. "It was a constant thing," he said in an interview shown in the film. "I think it was a spur for me to do better. Not only were you a bum; you were a Jewish bum."
He was the man Jews looked up to because he was "what most of them could never be," in attorney Alan Dershowitz's phrase. Jews were in sporting goods, not sports.
In 1937, Greenberg drove in 183 runs, one short of Lou Gehrig's American League record. The next year, he hit 58 home runs - he had that number with five games remaining. As the story goes, the word was out not to let a Jew break Babe Ruth's record of 60. Walks and pitches delivered with a high level of difficulty to become homers were the order of the day.
"I wasn't bitter at all," Greenberg says in the documentary.
In 1934 with the Tigers caught up in a battle for first place with the Yankees, Greenberg did not play one game. He observed the Jewish Holy Day of Yom Kippur. The film relates how when the big slugger entered the synagogue, a fan said, "My God, nobody ever saw a Jew that big." The congregation gave Greenberg a standing ovation.
A standing ovation is also due Aviva Kempner who devoted the past 12 years to complete this compelling and winning documentary - a film she wrote and directed.
Bravo, Ms. Kempner!
Bravo, Hank Greenberg!