As Hitler invaded Europe, a young Jewish baseball player challenged Babe Ruth's homerun record. This is the story of how he became an American hero.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a humorous and nostalgic documentary about an extraordinary baseball player who transcended religious prejudice to become an American icon. Detroit Tiger Hammerin' Hank's accomplishments during the Golden Age of Baseball rivaled those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
This compelling documentary examines how America's first Jewish baseball star was a beacon of hope to American Jews who faced bigotry during the Depression and World War II. Included in the colorful collage of forty-seven interviews are Hank Greenberg and family members; sports figures Ira Berkow, Ernie Harwell, Joe Falls and Dick Schaap; fellow players Bob Feller, Charlie Gehringer and Ralph Kiner; fans Alan Dershowitz, Congressman Sander Levin and Senator Carl Levin; and actors Walter Matthau, Michael Moriarty, and Maury Povich.
The film also features famous scenes from such Hollywood classics such as Gentleman's Agreement Night at The Opera, Pride of St. Louis and Woman of the Year as well as dramatic historical footage.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a feature length documentary film about an extraordinary baseball player who transcended ethnic and religious prejudice to become a hero for all Americans.
Hank Greenberg's achievements during the "Golden Age of Baseball" in the thirties and forties rivaled those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. As America's first Jewish baseball star, he also helped break down the barriers of discrimination in American sports and society. Greenberg was a beacon of hope to millions of American Jews who faced bigotry during the Depression and World War II.
"Hammering Hank" Greenberg's career spanned the years when our country faced the enormous challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. He played first base and outfield for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1946 and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. Known as a self-made star and notorious for his hours of daily practice, Greenberg was recognized by sportswriters as "one of the greatest power hitters."
In 1938, he achieved tremendous fame when he fell two homeruns short of matching Babe Ruth's record of sixty home runs in a single season. He was chosen Most Valuable Player in 1935 as a first baseman and again in 1940 as a left fielder. He batted in more than one hundred runs per season seven times in his career. His lifetime batting average was .313 and his career home run total was 331. In 1956 he received baseball's highest honor when he was voted into the Hall of Fame.
The highlights of his inspirational career constantly made the national headlines and captured the imagination not only of sportswriters but also of his loyal fans. His l938 attempt to beat Babe Ruth's home run record was followed closely in the press and by baseball fans all over America. In May 1941, Greenberg again made headline news as the first star ballplayer to enlist in the Armed Services. In June 1945, he was the first ballplayer to attempt a comeback after so long an absence from the sport. He did so successfully by hitting a home run in the first game he played upon his return. In l947, Greenberg set another benchmark when he became the first major league baseball player to earn more than $100,000 per year.
Hank Greenberg was the most famous Jewish ballplayer and thus faced many unique dilemmas. In 1934, a classic drama unfolded when Greenberg was forced to choose between his religion and career as an athlete. That year, the Detroit Tigers had a chance to win the pennant, a feat which had eluded the team since 1909. After receiving the blessing of a local rabbi, Greenberg decided to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and belted two crucial home runs to lead the Tigers to a 2-1 win.
That same year Greenberg chose not to play on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, however, because it is the most sacred of all Jewish holidays. Though he had played the previous day and had driven in a winning homer, Greenberg went to synagogue instead of the stadium despite the pennant race. Although the Tigers lost that day, "Hammerin' Hank" won the respect of the local community and the nation. A syndicated poet, Edgar Guest, was inspired to write an ode to Greenberg, which concluded:
"We shall miss him in the infield and
shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion -- and I
honor him for that!"
His most devoted fans were the first and second generation of American Jews whose fanatic appreciation for baseball was their 'badge as Americans'. During the thirties, the New York City ball clubs were on the lookout for a Jewish star to draw crowds in the largest Jewish city in the U.S. Ironically, they did not recruit Greenberg who grew up in their backyard. Yet Jewish Americans all over the country avidly watched Greenberg throughout his career, and he became the ethnic standard-bearer for them. The generations that followed idolized Greenberg as an American Jewish folk hero.
Shortly after Greenberg's death on September 4, 1986, New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow best explained why Greenberg was so worshipped:
"I never saw Hank Greenberg play, but he was a legendary ballplayer, especially in Jewish households like mine. He was the first truly great Jewish ballplayer and, Ironically, a power hitter in the 1930's when the position of the Jews in the world -- especially, of course, in Hitler's Germany -- grew weaker. I remember my uncles talking about the Greenberg's baseball exploits as if he were a kind of beacon for them."
Greenberg often faced the challenge of anti-Semitism in major league baseball. During the 1935 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the umpire had to intervene in order to stop the catcalling aimed at Greenberg from the Chicago bench. This is only one of the many personal experiences which later made him sensitive to other ballplayers who also faced prejudice and bigotry. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Greenberg empathized with the obstacles he faced and gave his support. Robinson remembered Greenberg as the first opposing-team player in the big leagues to give him encouragement.
Upon retirement, Greenberg was one of the few players to make a successful transition from the field to the front office. He was a part-owner and general manager of the Cleveland Indians from 1948-1958 and a vice president of the Chicago White Sox from 1959-1960.
Hank Greenberg's career contains all the makings of an American success story. His legacy as a player and as a human being combined with the challenges he overcame during his career embody the American dream and will make for a memorable documentary.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is loaded with poignant and often humorous stories highlighting his career. Storytelling by colleagues, family members and fans as well as the use of historical footage bring to life the inspiring saga of Greenberg's rise to baseball fame.
The primary source of material is Hank Greenberg himself. He recorded hours of reflective oral testimony during the last months of his life in preparation for his autobiography, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life , edited by Ira Berkow and published in May 1989. Greenberg was candid about the pressures he felt as a Jewish player and a role model. These personal observations serve as a running narrative throughout the film.
As Greenberg's achievements unfold on the screen, witnesses recall life in America during the Great Depression and World War II. While Greenberg talks about the trials and tribulations of developing a professional baseball career in the early thirties, moving visuals of the Depression years give his accomplishments an important historical context. Special emphasis will be put on the status of American Jews who faced anti-Semitism during these years. Radio accounts of Greenberg's baseball feats collide with the radio tirades of Father Coughlin, the infamous priest who preached anti-Semitic sermons from his Detroit parish.
The juxtaposition between Greenberg's career and world events is even more dramatic in the late thirties. In 1938, two years after Hitler refused to allow Jews to play in the Olympics and two months before Kristallnacht occurred in Germany, Greenberg was vying to break Babe Ruth's home run record. His baseball career also converged with world politics when he became the first star ballplayer to be drafted into the armed services in 1941.
Greenberg tells touching stories of his youth. For instance, he admits that he started playing baseball to compensate for feeling awkward as a tall, gangly adolescent. He recalls his parents thinking he was a 'bum' for playing baseball instead of attending college. He evokes wonderful baseball nostalgia in an interview with ABC News sportscaster, Dick Schaap, when he talks about the differences between his era of playing and baseball today.
The top contemporary sportswriters who wrote daily about Greenberg's exploits, recount exciting stories as well as give analytic overviews of his career. We see headlines and visuals from their newspaper and magazine accounts as sportswriter Shirley Povich talks about Greenberg's career.
Fellow ballplayers, family members, and friends will also give first hand accounts of Greenberg's life and career. Prominent teammates such as Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner and Charles Gehringer, who played second base for the Detroit Tigers with Greenberg, are valuable sources of anecdotes about Greenberg's playing and character. Prominent opposing players, like pitcher Bob Feller, talk about the nature and pressure of being baseball stars during those glorious days. Family members, especially Hank's siblings, and Walter Matthau reminisce about the more personal aspects of his life. His son Stephen, the former Deputy Commissioner of Baseball, who played minor league ball, will reveal some of his father's valuable pointers.
Detroit, where Greenberg played for most of his career, is an important source of interviews and locations. His articulate and knowledgeable fans remember Greenberg fondly in this Midwestern city.
Seasonal baseball cards, game programs, and still photos of the players, all of which have become collector's items, offer a rich visual texture to the film. They will also contribute to the storyline: one avid Greenberg fan tells of carrying Greenberg's card for good luck in his tuxedo on their wedding day. His bride, however, made him put the card away on his wedding night.
Lifetime baseball fans, especially celebrities, add to the audience appeal of the film. The strongest emotional moments of the film come from fans who adored Greenberg and created the mythology surrounding him. They provide entertaining commentary on a man who became larger than life to them. Fans who watched him play and admired him from afar give interviews in which they display an incredible memory for the minute details of his career. They describe the important role baseball and Greenberg's success played in their lives, especially for immigrant and second generation Jewish Americans.