“I never saw Hank Greenberg play, but he was a legendary ballplayer, especially in Jewish households like mine.” (New York sports columnist Ira Berkow)
As we enjoy this year’s edition of the Fall Classic, it seems like a good time to step back and experience a little of what baseball meant to America prior to the middle of the past century. A recent documentary on Hank Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish star player, offers an excellent opportunity to do so. The film in question — The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg — was written, produced, and directed by Aviva Kempner. Fox Home Video has now released a very fine DVD version containing an enriching collection of supplements.
Hank Greenberg’s baseball career is presented chronologically, on a season by season basis, utilizing a mix of archival footage and interviews with Greenberg himself and others.
Although Hank Greenberg’s major league career ended in the late 1940s, well before I was old enough to become interested in baseball, I found myself identifying strongly with the era during which he made his appearances in the World Series. It was a time when baseball was America’s main sport, when afternoon baseball was in vogue, and when not everything in the sport revolved around money and television schedules. My fondest memories of baseball are from the late 1950s and early 1960s, when much of that was still true. What baseball-loving kid from that time can’t remember either smuggling a transistor radio into school to hear bits of the Series games or rushing home right after school to catch the latest score or see the last inning or two on television? Now we’ve got games that are too long, too many players who are jerks, bloated salaries, and games scheduled at times that cater to corporate interests rather than the fans. Such is progress! (Thank God we’ve still got the Yankees, though — not all is lost!)
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a loving portrait of one of the stars of the 1930s and 40s, prepared with attention to detail and obvious enjoyment by Aviva Kempner. Kempner is a distinguished filmmaker who investigates non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and focuses on the untold stories of Jewish heroes. Hank Greenberg certainly qualifies on both counts. Her 1999 documentary on Greenberg is the result of 13 years of effort (largely due to difficulties in raising funds) and received numerous awards for excellence from various film festivals and associations of film critics. The reasons are obvious.
Hank Greenberg played for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1946 and finished his career in 1947 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The story of Greenberg’s rise to stardom, his ups and downs at World Series time, the chase for Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record in 1938, his two wins of the MVP award in 1935 and 1940, and the anti-Semitic comments that he had to suffer through during his career are all well-documented in this film. An impressive amount of period film footage has been assembled for the film and it has been nicely integrated with a number of interesting interviews of former players, relatives of Detroit Tigers management of the time, fans of both Greenberg’s and the more recent eras, and family. Some of the fans’ remarks are quite refreshing to hear, due to the level of enthusiasm displayed. Greenberg died in 1986, but interviews taken not long before he died have been extensively excerpted, allowing the man’s own words to back up the images on the screen. A man who was proud of his faith, Greenberg was a class act, from all accounts, despite what he had to put up with by virtue of being Jewish in a game that was a Christian stronghold, and it was ironic that as his career ended, that of another groundbreaker, Jackie Robinson, began. The first encounter between the two on the ball-field, summarized in the film, is of some interest.
If one would quibble at all about the documentary itself, it would be that Greenberg’s life away from the playing field gets short-changed a little. That’s where Fox’s DVD comes in. The major supplement on the disc is an audio commentary by Aviva Kempner who fills in those gaps so that by the end of it, you have a really rounded portrait of Greenberg the baseball player and Greenberg the person. Kempner really knows a lot about Greenberg and she conveys the information with enthusiasm. A very fine commentary! Also backing up the documentary on the disc are 20 minutes worth of interviews that were not used, presumably more due to time considerations than anything else, as they’re quite interesting to hear. Rounding out the disc are short biographies of both Greenberg and Kempner, Greenberg’s baseball statistics, reviews of the film by several print publications, a trailer, a some background notes by Kempner.
The disc’s audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that serves to convey the dialogue-intensive documentary quite adequately. An extensive number of period songs are used in the film (look for a listing as part of the seemingly endless credits at the end) and these come across fine given that they’re just used as background to set the mood. Hiss and distortion are sometimes present during the period footage used, as one might anticipate. Overall, it’s fair to say that the sound does nothing to mar one’s enjoyment of the proceedings.
I turn now to the film’s image transfer and I place my comments in this section more as an alert to the ragged look of much of the film rather than a criticism of it. Due to the extensive use of period footage, some of it looking like the footage that time forgot, a lot of the film suffers from extensive speckling, scratches, and poor contrast. The more recent interviews are obviously better on the whole, but given that they date back over the past 13 years (and more in the case of those with Greenberg), even some of them are not of a quality that one might expect. Which is all by way of saying that the source material is far from pristine. As a result, the DVD image (presented full frame as originally shot) suffers accordingly. There are no apparent digital artifacts, so one presumes Fox has gotten as much out of the material as was possible. That said, I don’t believe that anyone is going to be upset by the image quality of what they see. The story is so compelling and the use of the period material so extensive and well integrated that it’s easy to accept the ravages that time has caused.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg will appeal primarily to baseball fans, but anyone interested in the popular history of the twentieth century will find something to engage them. This is a biography that has been done with care and love. Fox’s DVD is the perfect complement with its inclusion of an audio commentary that covers the questions left unanswered by the film. Highly recommended. (And take note, how many DVDs do you know of that include Yiddish subtitles in English transliteration — s’iz a kaylekhklap far Hank Greenberg [it’s a homerun for Hank Greenberg]?)