Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner rereleases her bio of the Jewish slugger
by David Holzel
“I think Hank Greenberg was the great American hero,” Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner says. “What he did on Yom Kippur. What he faced. He was our Jackie Robinson.”
Thirteen years after the debut of her documentary about the baseball great, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Kempner is rereleasing the film on DVD – including an additional two hours of interviews that didn’t make the original cut. Greenberg, known to Jewish fans as the Detroit baseball power hitter who sat out an important game during the 1934 pennant race because it fell on Yom Kippur, scored achievements rivaling those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Greenberg served in World War II and, after his retirement from playing, went on to be an owner/manager of the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox. He faced anti-Semitism throughout his playing career.
The DVD of “extras” includes players who were contemporaries of Greenberg’s talking about him and how baseball used to be. In one humorous juxtaposition, Kempner follows a clip of a spirited argument for why being from the South makes a better player with a clip of an equally confident assertion that being in the North makes a better player. And she weaves an audio interview with Red Sox outfielder Ted Williams through the disc.
There are insights from baseball broadcasters and writers, like Washington’s Shirley Povich. And the fans have their say: Lawyer Alan Dershowitz tells how he hid his baseball glove behind his Talmud in school. Detroit-born brothers Sen. Carl Levin and Rep. Sander Levin talk about their passion for the game and reverence for Greenberg. Joanne Kinney, identified as a “batgirl,” describes how she convinced Greenberg to do her math homework for her.
Kempner spoke about Greenberg, the second time around:
What explains the fact that Hank Greenberg is still a household name?
He was a very powerful hitter. He almost broke Babe Ruth’s record. He stood up to adversity. He fought in war. And our heroes in Judaism are the stories we keep repeating. He taught America that he could be true to his religion, even in a pennant race.
What are the highlights of the extras for you?
Who else could get Ted Williams, the great Hall of Famer, and Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsberg in the same DVD extras? I’m pretty proud of that. Also Greenberg made all these great innovations in baseball, like taking mitts. [Before the practice changed, players dropped their mitts in the field rather than taking them back to the dugout.] I can’t imagine what that was about. Also, there’s more of Shirley Povich, [actor] Walter Matthau, Senator [Carl] Levin and his brother, Congressman Sander Levin.
You originally jumped on the idea for a documentary on Hank Greenberg because he was Jewish and played for your hometown team, the Detroit Tigers. Were you also a baseball fan?
My dad always talked about him. Every Yom Kippur my dad would talk about how Hank Greenberg hadn’t played on Yom Kippur ’34. I grew up thinking Hank Greenberg was part of Kol Nidre services. And another thing – I was tired of always seeing these nebbishes, these nerds on the screen. When Greenberg died [in 1986], I said, this is a Jewish hero I grew up with – a 6 foot 4, strapping Jewish male. Of course I had my crushes in baseball. So I thought I’ve got to do it, but I’ve got to do it from the point of view of the fans. The worshipping of him was amazing. And luckily he lived up to the image.
Has your thinking on Greenberg changed?
No. Can you imagine what it is to go every day to work and have people yell and scream names to you? It’s important for people to see what he faced – and in America. Maybe we can be a little more sympathetic to the other in this country, to immigrants or to people who don’t look exactly like us or practice their religion like us.
What I think one of his greatest significances is, in ’34 is not playing on Yom Kippur. He really taught America what our holiest day was. And how the Supreme Court still has the Hank Greenberg model, according to Justice Ginsburg. They won’t have cases argued on Yom Kippur in case there’s a Jewish lawyer. She said the justices can take off, but what if it’s a lawyer?
Do you think he really did a girl’s math homework for three months? I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
Absolutely. She swears by it. That was when you had access. There was that other man who followed Greenberg around at the airport and wound up sitting next to him on the plane. It’s just a different era.
I was amused at the section in the interviews where the veteran players are griping: about astro turf, about the balls and bats players use now, about baseball today as showbiz.
It was the golden age of baseball. Games were played during the day. There was more pure hitting. It wasn’t being a multimillionaire superstar. It was for the love of the game. I’m not saying that players today don’t love the game. What I’m saying is the heroes of the game are the ones who played back then.
Greenberg could have moved into showbiz, become a superstar, if he was playing today, don’t you think?
I think he did exactly what he wanted to – he went into management. He loved the game so much. And there were great innovations like the scoreboard, hiring African Americans in the league. I don’t think he was a showy man in that way but, yeah, he could have done pretty much anything he wanted to.
Are you working on a new film?
I’m working on a film about the great philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the head of Sears Roebuck. One hundred years ago he gave away $62 million to a little over 5,000 schools for African Americans, and gave to thousands of African American artists and scholars. I think it’s a great philanthropy story, and an unknown story between blacks and Jews.
Aviva Kempner will screen excerpts from the extras to The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and lead a discussion at noon, May 13, in The Mary Pickford Theater of the Library of Congress Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE. For information about the film, go to hankgreenbergfilm.org