What makes a sports hero? Simply put, it’s winning. Which means that new stars are made every time athletes meet in competition. But there are occasions when a sports figure becomes a cultural icon, when a throwaway song line like "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" hits a collective nerve.
Hank Greenberg may already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but in her wonderful documentary, Aviva Kempner seeks to restore his place in America’s social history.
Greenberg’s athletic prowess was well-documented. Playing for the Detroit Tigers in 1930, from 1933 to 1940 and for two more years following service in World War II, he led the team to the World Series four times (they won twice). His individual records include topping the American League in home runs three times, and taking the RBI crown four times. In 1938, Hammerin’ Hank hit 58 home runs, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record.
As Kempner points out, Greenberg had already been facing a steady stream of anti-Semitic heckling, and his decision to observe Jewish holidays during a pennant race had been front-page news. So his achievements served as a symbolic counterpoint to Adolf Hitler’s banning of Jewish athletes from the Olympic Games, and the tidal wave of hate crimes that commenced with Kristallnacht.
If all Kempner did was draw these two parallel lines, she would have made a successful documentary. But she goes beyond the obvious to create a well-rounded portrait of Greenberg, who embodied quiet strength and dignity (one of the film’s most eloquent moments finds him crossing paths with then-rookie Jackie Robinson).
The most warm, lively and often humorous responses come from Greenberg’s fans. Their memories are still powerful enough to transform seasoned politicians such as Carl and Sander Levin into starry-eyed little boys again.
Former Detroiter Kempner infuses her portrait of Hank Greenberg with such a joie de vivre that it’s a delight for the already converted and nonsports fans alike.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].