Jewish Journal

Remembering Greenberg

He batted for the Tigers, himself and American Jews.

by Richard Sandomir

Posted on May. 18, 2000 at 8:00 pm

In late September 1934, Hank Greenberg, the great Detroit Tigers slugger, chose not to play a crucial game against the Yankees so that he could observe Yom Kippur. A hero to Detroit's Jewish community in only his second season, Greenberg's appearance at Shaarey Zedek synagogue moved the congregants to burst into applause as four rabbis prayed. "Here was this Jewish fella, walking into the synagogue," Bert Gordon, a fan, recalls in"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a new documentary by Aviva Kempner. "Six feet four!My God, nobody had never seen a Jew that big. Everybody was 5 foot 5, 5 foot 6!"The Tigers lost the game, 5-2, yet won the American League pennant. But Greenberg's decision to honor his heritage galvanized his bond with Jews. "The Jewish people,"Bud Shaver wrote in The Detroit Times, "could have no finer representative."

Aviva Kempner and her brother, Jonathan, knew of Greenberg from their father, Harold,who left Lithuania for Pittsburgh in 1925 and settled in Detroit. To Harold Kempner, baseball was a ritual of American assimilation and Greenberg a symbol. As SenatorCarl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, puts it in the film, Greenberg "validated that thiswas the land of opportunity: look, we could even play baseball!" So each year, Harold Kempner reminded his children that Greenberg sat on Yom Kippur. "I thought Hank Greenberg was part of the Kol Nidre liturgy," Ms. Kempner, now 53, said in a recent interview.

Harold Kempner died in 1976 and Greenberg died 10 years later, one day before Ms. Kempner attended the Los Angeles opening of her first film, "The Partisans of Vilna,"a documentary about Jewish resistance to the Nazis in that cultured Lithuanian city."As soon as I heard that Hank had died, I knew he would be my next film," she said.

To Ms. Kempner, documenting the life of a Jewish ballplayer is only a small leap from chronicling Jewish partisans in the ghetto. "With 'Partisans,' I tried to figure out the unanswered question, "Why didn't Jews resist?" which was totally incorrect," she said."It should have been, "How could they resist?" It was so difficult. They were so isolated.With Hank Greenberg, I wanted to counter the screen stereotype that Jewish men were nebbishes.There was another image, and for my ethnic background it was Hank."

Despite acclaim for "Vilna," raising $1 million was not easy when her subject was a dead ballplayer who did not marry a movie star, endorse products or make staged stadium appearances, like Joe DiMaggio. There would be no grants like the $400,000 provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities for "Vilna." Several times she shut down filming to rustle up money from a a variety of sources, including regional and localarts groups, Jewish organizations, individuals like Kirk Douglas and Norman Lear, the Greenberg family, and the Shaarey Zedek synagogue.

"In the beginning, we weren't even sure it would be completed," said Alva Greenberg,Hank's daughter. "We'd see 10-minute segments, but we didn't know what it would add up to be." But after 13 years -- as long as Greenberg's baseball career -- "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"will open on Wednesday at Film Forum in Manhattan for a two-week run.

Spending so much time on a single project requires tenacity, even a crush on one's subject. Occasionally, Ms. Kempner said, she spoke to a life-size hooked rug bearingGreenberg's likeness that hangs in her house in Washington. "Many a night," she said,"I'd just go into the living room and turn the lights low. I'd look at Hank and say:"I'm going to do it. It's going to get done. And I'd pray to my dad." She paused, then regained her composure. "It's just how I honor my father," she added. "If he could see this film, he'd be kvelling."

Greenberg's greatness is undisputed. In a career interrupted for most of five seasons by World War II, the lumbering first baseman hit 331 home runs,compiled a .313 career batting average and knocked in 1,276 runs. In 1937, his 183 runs batted in were one fewer than Lou Gehrig's league record. His 58 home runs in 1938 were second to the 60 hit by Babe Ruth in 1927. "No question that he was the greatest Jewish hitter of all time," said Steve Greenberg, one of Greenberg's two sons and a former deputy commissioner ofMajor League Baseball. "But that's not how he wanted to be remembered. If you talk to players of that era, they knew he was one of the greatest players.Ted Williams said he was his idol." In Ms. Kempner's homey documentary -- a quilt of newsreel footage, interviews and spirited music selections like Mandy Patinkin singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Yiddish -- Greenberg is a quiet hero flawed only by his fielding range. To the worshipful fans who adored him as "Hankus Pankus,"Greenberg was a "messiah," "a Jewish god," a Moses-like savior who refuted the stereotypesabout what Jews could do.

"I had this Captain Marvel, Hank Greenberg, on my shoulder," Rabbi Reeve Brenner says in the film. "He was my big brother, my mishpocheh" (family). Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor, adds, "He was what "they" said we could never be." When the Tigers traded Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, Don Shapiro, an oral surgeon and fan, felt as if "your bubbe" -- grandmother -- "moved to Mississippi." The passion is poignant, humorous and over the top, like Ms. Kempner's. Yet those who admired Greenberg know his achievements came in the face of ethnic baiting by fans and rival players and the anti-Semitic rantings of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the so-called radio priest from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, and Henry Ford.

"At the height of domestic anti-Semitism and the Nazis overrunning Europe, here was a Jewish player so good, so powerful and almost breaking Ruth's record," Ms. Kempner said."Two months after Hank nearly broke Ruth's record, Kristallnacht happened in Germany." In a 1984 interview used in the film, Greenberg recalled: "There was always some leatherlung yelling at me. I found it was a spur to make me do better because I could never fallasleep on the field. As soon as you struck out, you weren't only a bum, you were a Jewish bum."

Greenberg served as an unusual Jewish icon. He was raised in an Orthodox householdand had a bar mitzvah, but as an adult he grew distant from Judaism. "He took the 10Commandments as his code of living," Steve Greenberg said. "You wouldn't find him inthe shul at High Holidays, but he thought about being a mensch."

Ms. Kempner's film is a reminder of Greenberg's significance at a particular time,but his life does not resonate as powerfully today as it did in the 1930's. Jews still constitute a distinct minority in sports, but their status is rarely an issue. "Hank Greenberg was a tough Jew when tough Jews were important," said Peter Levine,author of "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field: Sports and the American Jewish Experience" "But if you wanted tough Jews after 1948, you looked at Israel, where Jews put theirlives on the line. He was a role model for my parents' generation." Yet Alva Greenberg, who knew little of her father's impact until she attended college,said: "People don't understand what happened then and what's happening now. We need to understand that the roots of anti-Semitism go way.

Hank Greenberg the Angeleno

In "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," Walter Matthau describes how he joined the BeverlyHills Tennis Club just to be close to his boyhood hero. "It's the only reason I joined, becauseI don't play tennis," he admits. "I was there every afternoon trying to get lunch with him.... So I had a lot of lunch."

Greenberg, who spent the last 12 years of his life in L.A., held court daily at the club, where members hung on hisevery word. Displaced Easterners regularly stopped him on the street to ask for his autograph or to say how much hemeant to them as Jews growing up in the 1930s. Initially, Greenberg was a reluctant Angeleno.

Hank Greenberg, at 70, watching the Israeli tennis team at UCLA.

When his second wife, Mary Jo, first asked him to consider relocating here, the athlete-turned-stockmarket investor scoffed. Los Angeles was three hours behind the New York stock exchange, he argued. But the climate and lifestyle eventually changed his mind.

In L.A., Greenberg had little to do with baseball. He attended only half a dozen Dodger games, andwhen he occasionally watched games on TV, Mary Jo would hear him complaining: "You bum, you can't hit your hat, but you're making millions."

His life here primarily consisted of stock trading and tennis; it was at the Beverly Hills club that he met Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple, who had revered the Jewish ball player while growing up in an anti-Semitic small town in south central Michigan. "Magically, my childhood idol became my friend,"says the rabbi, who found that Greenberg, in his final years, was pondering his identity as a Jew.

Greenberg wasn't a religious man, Beerman recalls; he did not attend synagogue, but he staunchlysupported Israel and enjoyed debating Middle East politics with the rabbi. Greenberg supported the United Jewish Fund and the U.S. committee of Sports for Israel and offered Beerman a first-personaccount of the famous story of how he refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur 1934. While the newspapersportrayed Greenberg as a hero, he did not feel particularly heroic when he walked into the Detroitsynagogue on that September day.

"Everyone burst into applause, and he was so embarrassed," Beerman says. "He was only 23 years old. He just wanted to hide his face." When the athlete died of cancer at age 75 in 1986, it was Beerman who conducted the graveside service at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner visited the grave on a recent trip to L.A., where Greenberg's friends and fans, notably TV guru NormanLear, helped her raise much of the funds for her film.

Greenberg's son, Stephen, a former attorney and minor-league baseball player, has a favorite story about his dad in L.A., which is recounted in Greenberg's autobiography "Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life." It happened the day Mark Fidrych, a former Detroit Tigers pitcher, arrived for lunch with Matthau at the club.The eccentric Fidrych had been known as The Bird, or "flaky one," because he had strutted like a peacock and talkedto himself on the mound. He began to heckle Greenberg on the tennis court: "In ball park vernacular, that is knownas bench-jockeying, which is what the opposing teams used to do to my dad -- except they used to yell "kike" or "yid," Stephen Greenberg recalls. Fidrych kept it up until Greenberg, red in the face, and with every vein throbbing on his neck, dropped his racquet, stomped over to the fence and yelled: "I can hit anything you pitch -- down the middle, outside, inside, curve-ball, slider, screwball!" Fidrych was too stunned to reply.

When Matthau later asked Greenberg why he had become so angry, his reply was succinct. "You gotta intimidate pitchers," he said."That was my father in his 70's," Stephen Greenberg marvels. "Still trying to intimidate pitchers."

*Photo courtesy of the Greenberg family Collection.

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