- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

This space is not normally about shilling for movies, but one is coming to town that you simply must see. "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" opens Friday at the Outer Circle in Northwest, Washington, D.C., and Fair City Mall in Fairfax, Va., so go already.
Hall of Famer Greenberg, of course, was one of the greatest sluggers in baseball history on behalf of the Detroit Tigers, as well as its first prominent Jew. But you don't have to be a baseball fan or Jewish to have the documentary hit home. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner puts it very well: "It's a great American story."
In a day when John Rocker's outrageous remarks mostly are greeted with scorn and disbelief, it's jarring to realize that 65 years ago prejudice often was right out there in the open. In baseball never the most delicate of pursuits Irishmen were called "Micks," Italians were "Dagos," Latinos "Spics" and Eastern Europeans "Polacks." Considering Greenberg stood virtually alone as a Jewish star, you can imagine what he was called. (And black players in the majors back then? Forget it.)
Much of Kempner's film deals with what Greenberg had to face as he batted .313, with 331 home runs and 1,276 RBI over a 13-year career interrupted at its peak by World War II. Kempner, 53, who now lives in the District but grew up in Detroit, was introduced to baseball by her father, a native of Lithuania who embraced America's national pastime passionately. When Greenberg died of cancer in September 1986, she vowed to bring his story to the screen. As it turned out, the project required 13 years and had to be put aside several times for lack of funding.
"It was excruciatingly painful," says Kempner, a winner of previous cinematic MVP awards who wrote, directed and produced the film. "Every morning I'd wake up knowing, 'I gotta raise money today.' "
She even spent time talking one-on-one with a hooked rug bearing Greenberg's likeness that hangs in her home. Her end of the conversation went this way: "We're gonna get it done."
Getting it done eventually cost about $1 million, Kempner says, mostly from her own pocket and private donations. The film has been released sporadically around the nation because she could afford to have only seven prints made rather than the dozens required for wider distribution. But so far, it has been a rousing success, playing 10 weeks in several cities.
"I'm thrilled with the reaction," Kempner says. "People who aren't even fans find a lot of drama in Hank's story. Even men have cried at the film."
That's easy to understand because Greenberg was a hero to many American Jews who had few others in sports. He kept his born name in an era when many Jews didn't and answered all the prejudice with his bat. It's easy now to forget what a star he was in baseball's bombs-away era. In 1937, he came within one of Lou Gehrig's American League record of 184 RBI. The following year, he fell only two short of Babe Ruth's major league mark of 60 homers possibly because many teams pitched around him in the waning weeks.
After spending nearly five seasons in military service, Greenberg won the 1945 pennant for the Tigers with a home run on the final day of the season (they beat out the Washington Senators, of all people). Traded to Pittsburgh for a final season, he helped develop Ralph Kiner into a prime slugger. Later he became a respected baseball executive and minority owner with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. (Why the Tigers never summoned him to run their front office remains a mystery.)
"He was part of my dreams, part of my aspirations," actor Walter Matthau says in Kempner's film. "I wanted to be Hank Greenberg."
And this from Jo-Jo White, a teammate on Detroit's pennant winners of 1934 and '35: "When I first met Hank [in the minors], I couldn't understand. I had always been told Jews had horns. Hank looked like a normal person."
Like Sandy Koufax 30 years later, Greenberg passed up World Series games when they fell on the High Holy Days. And of the 1947 season, when Greenberg's career was ending and Jackie Robinson's beginning, Hank told his son, Steve Greenberg later baseball's deputy commissioner "I didn't know what having it bad was until I saw what they did to Jackie."
To the Brooklyn Dodgers' pioneer himself, after a collision at first base, Greenberg simply said something like, "Hang in there."
Today Jews are much more common in sports: Baseball players Shawn Green of the Dodgers and Mike Lieberthal of the Phillies, boxing champion Dana Rosenblatt, wrestling megastar Goldberg and four NHL players pad the ranks. But just because racial and ethnic prejudices are less virulent and prevalent today, we shouldn't forget what they can do to undermine a person and a country.
Greenberg deserves enormous respect for his skill and courage, as does Kempner. Hank's story should get the widest possible exposure and for a bonus at the finish, there's Mandy Patinkin singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in Yiddish.

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