In biographical documentaries, we’ve learned to expect the unpleasant revelation, the twist that reveals the darker character. It’s that darkness that makes a person interesting, right?
So while watching the film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” I kept expecting that twist, when the baseball slugger of the 1930’s and 40’s would be revealed to have some secret fetish or phobia or something. But it never comes. In this thoroughly enjoyable, admirably unpretentious and meticulously assembled doc about the legendary ball player, Greenberg is just a decidedly decent guy who broke ethnic barriers and smashed home runs.
In the 30’s, a time when anti-Semitism could be viewed as another of our national pastimes, Greenberg was a true rarity—a Jewish professional baseball player. While many earlier Jewish players had changed their names to avoid the grief and bigotry, Greenberg not only acknowledged his religious heritage (refusing to play on the Yom Kippur holiday during a heated pennant race), but came to understand and proudly accept his role as a trail-blazing exemplar.
Director and writer Aviva Kempner draws on an enormous array of well-chosen archival footage and smartly edited interviews to build a sincere, resolutely upbeat portrait of an athlete whose unyielding work ethic and on-field exploits came to mean so much more to so many people, the stuff of folk legend. With editor Marian Sears Hunter, she displays a perceptive sense of visual rhythm, and a knack for finding just the right photo for just the right moment, never resorting to sloppy sentimentalism or hollow nostalgia.
In addition to interviews with Greenberg’s brother and children, and with sports figures like Dick Schapp, Charlie Gehringer and Bob Feller, there is heartfelt and funny commentary from average Joe fans, who saw Greenberg as a kind of Hebrew Superman fighting dark forces through his powers of batting average and runs batted in. Walter Matthau talks with a grinning fan-boy humility about his worship of Greenberg, and how he joined the Beverly Hills Tennis Club solely to have lunch with him.
Especially enjoyable are the stories from the self-described Greenberg “groupie,” whose tales of distant but fervent youthful adoration provide the warmest moments, and gives a sly idea of another kind of impact “Hammerin’ Hank” had on some of his fans. Greenberg himself is represented by interview footage from 1983, and he comes across as every bit the confident but humble man the film would like him to be, well aware and proud of his role in helping change a national perception, yet still just a hard-working guy you could have a beer with.
With the recent release of “42”, comparisons to Jackie Robinson are natural, and the film gracefully covers the intersection of the two greats at the opposite ends of their careers. In 1947, Robinson had just broken into the Majors, and Greenberg was finishing his career after an unexpected trade from his beloved Detroit Tigers to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Having suffered some of the same measure of abuse and hatred, Greenberg spoke with Robinson, giving him his full support and encouragement, a gesture of respect and humanity Robinson never forgot.
“Life and Times” doesn’t shy away from the baseball footage, and provides a healthy share of insider baseball goodies worthy of even die-hard diamond aficionados. In addition to being the first $100,000 salaried ball player, Greenberg was also primarily responsible for the creation of a larger, specialized first baseman’s mitt because of his desire to overcome his own inadequacies as a fielder. And the film also captures the meaning of Greenberg as not just an ethnic hero (“the Moses of baseball”) in the sport that meant the most to immigrants of the time, but as hero to the whole town of Detroit, an icon of baseball in one of THE baseball towns of America.
But this is no documentary just for baseball fans. Anyone who enjoys stories of people who rise to the occasion, who face adversity with dignity, and who challenge social norms for the good of a nation, will find much to enjoy in “Life and Times.” You don’t always need that darkness–sometimes decent guys are interesting, too.
“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is presented in fullscreen format, in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The original film was shot in 16mm and copied to a digital format, so Kempner herself apologizes in the liner notes for the “less than pristine” footage in this new DVD edition. Indeed, the picture quality on the extras disc is notably grainy much of the time. There is a closed captioning track and English subtitles.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital stereo 2.0. The digital treatment reveals some of the limitations of the original source material.
- A second disc with nearly two hours of extras not included on the original 2001 DVD release:
- A trove of worthy footage that didn’t make the final cut, including a stunning section about the Anti-Semitism of the time, and a great segment with actor Michael Moriarty talking about his grandfather, a major league umpire who defended Greenberg during the ‘35 World Series.
- An enjoyable commentary track with writer/producer/director Aviva Kempner, full of background information about the interview subjects, the music and much more.
- A slideshow of Greenberg’s biography and career stats
- A slideshow biography of director Aviva Kempner
- Original theatrical trailer, along with trailers for two other Kempner films
- A mildly gratuitous set of reviews and list of awards won by the film on its original release
Winner of the National Board of Review’s “Best Documentary” award in 2000, this new 2-disc edition DVD release of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is a funny, sweet-natured and life-affirming portrait of one of baseball’s true greats.