A Jewish Hero is Immortalized on Film
By Brian Berk
Hank Greenberg, base-ball's first Jewish hall of famer, faced anti-Semitism in the 1930's and 40's. When Greenberg was stopped by a police officer in Manhattan, the officer asked, "What's your pro-fession?"
"I'm a professional base-ball player," Greenberg re-canted before his death in 1986. "Who ever heard of a Greenberg being a baseball player?" the officer said.
"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a movie directed by Avina Kempner and distributed by Cowboy Booking International, opened at Film Forum on 209 W. Houston St. in New York on Jan. 12. Forty na-tional markets were ex-pected to see the Hank Greenberg documentary after a two-week "trial pe-riod." The film has won awards including the Cine Golden Eagle Award and the Audience Award at last year's Hamptons Film Fes-tival.
Greenberg, the late De-troit Tiger and Pittsburgh Pirate legend, belted 58 home runs with five games remaining in the 1938 sea-son. He had a chance to break Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs. Green-berg never hit another home run that year. Writer/broadcaster Dick Schaap believed religion was the reason. "(The op-posing pitchers) wouldn't give him a chance to break Ruth's record," Schaap said in the film. "They didn't want a Jew named Hank Greenberg to do it."
The racial slurs shouted at Greenberg were terrible. Once, an umpire halted a game to warn an opposing team about making further comments. "Jews in those days suffered from their failures and their successes," said attorney Alan Dershowitz.
Greenberg, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., was a role model for Jewish people across America. "He was part of my dreams, part of my aspirations," said actor Walter Mathau. "I wanted to be Hank Greenberg."
Kempner's movie estab-lished many lesser-known facts about Greenberg. In 1941, at the age of 30, Greenberg was drafted into the army where he served in Burma. He returned to the major leagues in 1945 and hit a home run in his first game back. "He had the greatest comeback in all of sports," Kempner said.
In 1947,Greenberg's final major league season, he collided with Jackie Robin-son at first base. Robinson faced bigotry because he was black. According to Pirate teammate, hall of fame outfielder Ralph Ki-ner, Greenberg offered words of encouragement for the youthful Robinson.
Many credited Greenberg for modern-day first base-man's mitts. The 6-foot-four-inch man had large hands. His glove did not fit properly. Greenberg ex-panded the webbing on the mitt. He sparked a contro-versy as to whether certain mitts could be larger than others could. The league decided that Greenberg's glove would be permitted in games.
Greenberg had many achievements in his career. He was chosen Most Valu-able Player both in 1935 as a first baseman and 1940 as a left fielder. Greenberg had a lifetime batting aver-age of .313. He became the first baseball player to earn over $100,000 in salary. Greenberg was elected to baseball's hall of fame in 1956.
Kempner, 53, worked 13 years to complete the film. She felt that if Hank Greenberg were alive to-day, "he would be a little embarrassed by the film." She adds that he would feel "he got his just due for his accomplishments."
Kempner hoped that her movie conveyed a message. "Prejudice does not belong in sports," she said.
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