Hamerin’ Hank Greenberg: The Life & Times of a Hero

Hamerin’ Hank Greenberg , the American League’s Most Valuable Player of 1935 and 1940, played in 19 games in 1941 before changing his Detroit uniform for a US Army one. He returned to Detroit in the middle of the 1945 season. (Stats here.)

In the two weeks between his discharge and his first field appearance, he took so many practice swings that his hands turned raw and bloody. In his first game he hit a winning home run. Over the 78 games he played in 1945, he hit .311. Then he led the Tigers to a World Series championship. He was 35 years old and had missed almost all of four seasons.

The Life & Times of Hank Greenberg’ (1999), which I watched last evening, celebrates the playing career of baseball’s first Jewish Hall of Famer. It also celebrates the generation of Jews who idolized and befriended him.  It is an exceptionally well-made film in every category.

A phenomenally attractive man in every sense of the adjective, Greenberg was a classic ‘team’ player and a worthy hero for a generation of kids – and adults. Using contemporary and archival footage, writer/producer/director Aviva Kempner documents his feats on the field and his impact on the lives of friends and fans.

Not surprisingly given his times, Greenberg suffered slews of ethnic taunts. With one notable exception when he walked into an opposing locker room to confront a tormenter, he appears to have bourne them.

It is a measure of the good-heartedness of ‘Life & Times’ that it makes no reference to Detroit’s great star of the 1900s-20s, Ty Cobb, a loner, misanthrope and bigot. In every way save an important one – their stern work ethic – the two were contrasts.

Watching the footage of Greenberg trying to score in game two of the 1935 Series by smashing into the immovable Cub Hall of Famer, Gabby Hartnett I wondered: would Hartnett have flinched had it been Cobb coming at him in his famous spikes first slide?

In that daring but futile attempt, Greenberg broke his wrist. He started the 1936 season but rebroke it nineteen games in and did not play again until 1937.

Greenberg is remembered today mainly for his 1938 run at Babe Ruth’s 60-home-run record. That is ironic because his passion was for runs batted in.

A lumbering first baseman much like the Red Sox’s David Ortiz, he moved to left field when the Tigers acquired another hard-hitting first baseman. He got everyone from fellow Tigers to kids off the street to hit him balls to learn a position he was certainly not born to play. In today’s debased American League, like Ortiz, he could have been a designated hitter.

Hank Greenberg’s final year, 1947, was spent in Pittsburgh. ‘Life & Times’ attributes his trade to the Pirates to the Detroit owner’s hair-trigger reaction to a news photo showing Greenberg in a Yankees uniform (which he’d worn in a 1943 War Bond exhibition game) and an accompanying story claiming Greenberg wanted to end his career in the Bronx where he grew up.

If that story is true, it should rank high among the all-time dumb/ugly owner stories. But Greenberg was 36, his numbers were declining, and he wanted more money than the Tigers were willing to pay.

1947 was not a banner year for Hank Greenberg. Nonetheless he is fondly remembered in Pittsburgh, and the year gave rise to two very pleasing stories.

First, according to ‘Life & Times’, Greenberg was talked into playing for Pittsburgh by its principal owner, John W. Galbreath, who offered him everything he wanted and then delivered. Galbreath, a man I admired and of whom I’ve written before, also built ‘Greenberg Gardens’ which shortened left field for the right-handed hitter. It was over the departed Gardens that Bill Mazeroski hit his walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 1960 Series.

(Over the credits – which should not be missed – Kempner plays ‘Goodby, Mr. Ball, Goodby’ sung by Greenberg, Groucho Marx and Pirates minority owner, Bing Crosby on Crosby’s radio show. The entire soundtrack is a gem, beginning with a rousing ‘Take me out to the ball game’ in Yiddish.)

The second story is far more important. 1947 was the year Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in the Big Leagues. Being in the National League, Greenberg could offer public and private support for Robinson. Aviva Kempner emphasizes how much greater the challenges Robinson faced on and off the field. Nonetheless….

‘Life & Times’ is not Hank Greenberg warts and all. For instance, until the credits Kempner doesn’t reveal Greenberg’s divorce. Rather she honors a great major league career carried off with grace, team loyalty and brutal hard work. And, she celebrates the people whose lives Greenberg brightened.

All hail Hank Greenberg! And many thanks, Aviva Kempner.