The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

Directed by Aviva Kempner
Starring: Walter Matthau, Michael Moriarty.
MPAA Rating: Not rated (appropriate for all audiences)

Review by Matt Heffernan
January 30, 2000

The first sports movie of the year, Play It to the Bone, was an utter failure. Thankfully, there's an inspiring true story to make up for it.

Baseball had Jewish players before Hank Greenberg came to the Detroit Tigers in the 1930's. None of them, however, were as upfront about their heritage or did more to help erase anti-Semitism from the sport. Not only was "Hammering" Hank (a.k.a. "Hankus Spankus") a role model for Jewish boys, he was a hero to the whole city of Detroit. He was key to winning four American League pennants for the Tigers, and also winning two of the subsequent World Series (their first in the history of the franchise).

The story of how he grew up in the Bronx and became a baseball star is told through film clips of his games and interviews with his surviving family and friends. Also included are television interviews that Hank did a few years before his death in 1986. We see how he was drafted in 1941, and discharged because he was over 30. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he re-enlisted, sacrificing over three years of his career to serve his country in World War II. He returned for most of the 1945 season, taking the Tigers to a world championship. After a league-leading season in 1946, he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he played his last season as the first player to earn $100,000 for the year.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a wonderfully entertaining documentary, even if you are a sports-ignorant gentile. Unlike many athletes, Hank Greenberg was a true hero, and his story is fascinating. First-time director Aviva Kempner pulls together footage from the last seventy years, and tells this story clearly and concisely. It was a daunting task, and I see a potentially great documentary filmmaker.

It never hurts to add a little celebrity to the occasion, so a few notable people also give interviews. Walter Matthau was a friend of Hank, and also gives the perspective of a Jewish kid who idolized him in the mid-30's. Michael Moriarty has some second-hand information from his grandfather, who was an umpire for many Detroit games in that era. Even Congressmen Carl and Sander Levin comment on how Hank helped Jews get accepted in all parts of American society. Their words are alternately humorous and moving, and they help validate the film's message.

There's a lot of the year 2000 left. Hopefully a fictional sports movie will come out that is at least half as good as this one.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) -- VHS
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) -- DVD
Hank Greenberg: Hall-Of-Fame Slugger, by Ira Berkow -- Hardcover Home
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan