- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

Movie-going habits and prejudices die hard. Sooner or later, millions of grateful spectators will find "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" a real pleasure.

It is Aviva Kempner's superlative biographical chronicle of the late, great Detroit Tigers slugger. Moviegoers, however, may decide not to see it in the theater, persuaded by either experience or hearsay that the word "pleasure" is difficult to associate with the word "documentary."

This attitude will deprive potential viewers of a happy experience while "Life and Times" is available at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax and the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle in the District.

The filmmaker credits the National Archives with much of the period illustration that authenticates her portrait of Mr. Greenberg, a native of the Bronx who became a source of pride and comfort to American Jews while playing first base and hitting for power with the Tigers in the late 1930s.

His first full season, at age 23, was in 1934. The team vaulted from the middle of the pack in the American League to the championship and shared a memorable seven-game World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals of Dizzy Dean and Frankie Frisch.

A second pennant followed in 1935. The New York Yankees reasserted their dominance during the next four seasons, but Mr. Greenberg had remarkable years in 1937 and 1938. He came within one RBI of Lou Gehrig's league record in 1937, then fell two home runs short of Babe Ruth's record the following season.

Mr. Greenberg, who served nearly five years in the Army during World War II, retired after the 1947 season, spent reluctantly with the Pittsburgh Pirates following a sudden and peevish trade by the Tigers.

While recalling this colossal misunderstanding in "Life and Times," Miss Kempner empathizes with Detroit fans who felt shocked and betrayed.

Mr. Greenberg was a brawny but unmistakably Jewish star. He endured anti-Semitic ill will and mockery while making the Tigers formidable in the middle and late 1930s.

He remains a marvelous figure of a man in 1983 and 1984 TV interviews. In one of them, he recalls a happily defiant outlook toward fan abuse: "There was always some leather lung yelling at me. I found it was a spur to make me do better, because I could never fall asleep on the field. As soon as you struck out, you weren't only a bum, you were a Jewish bum."

Miss Kempner has cleverly augmented excerpts from these conversations with passages from lengthy tape-recorded recollections made by Mr. Greenberg for his autobiography. His own account of events is woven into a slightly camouflaged narration.

Miss Kempner's own interviews with former teammates and professional rivals, family members and fans, both famous and obscure, surround the Greenberg commentary so colorfully and evocatively that a narrative thread sustained by the subject himself is almost impossible to detect.

"Life and Times" seems to hit all the highlights while clarifying Mr. Greenberg's importance to the morale of first- and second-generation American Jews.

The prominent witnesses include Walter Matthau, Alan Dershowitz and Carl and Sander Levin. The less prominent witnesses range from the pithy Bert Gordon, who declares, "Nobody ever saw a Jew that big," to a wistful fan named Harriet, who once hovered around Mr. Greenberg in harmless ways, eventually maneuvering herself into position for a snapshot with her unsuspecting hero at spring training.

Miss Kempner also takes pleasure in documenting the fallible sides of Mr. Greenberg's baseball skills. Big and lumbering, he had little natural grace covering either first base or left field.

The film also features amusing interludes with former second baseman Charlie Gehringer and center fielder Barney McCoskey, who needed to expand their range somewhat to make up for Mr. Greenberg's limitations.

Clips of Mr. Greenberg striking out are dynamically enjoyable because he seems to have torqued himself into almost 360-degree rotations whenever swinging hard and missing.

Bob Feller proves an unrepentant competitor while recalling how he intimidated Mr. Greenberg. Tigers' teammate Hal Newhouser rubs it in, fondly, by saying that Hank is the guy he would most like to see batting in the clutch for his team unless, of course, Mr. Feller happened to be pitching.

Miss Kempner cannot resist such goofy but evocative period stuff as Mr. Greenberg being filmed stripping down to his underwear while reporting to the draft board in 1940 or inspecting a line of members of the Women's Army Corps while serving in the Army a few years later.

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is well worth the wait and Miss Kempner's devotion.

FOUR STARS

TITLE: "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"

RATING: No MPAA rating (a biographical sports documentary with fleeting profanity in some interviews and archival footage; by and large, suitable for general audiences)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Aviva Kempner

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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