YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


For Determined Filmmaker, Tale of Jewish Baseball Hero Became a Quest

Overlooked today, Hank Greenberg was a symbol to '30s and '40s fans, and to documentarian.


Like someone recalling Pearl Harbor or President Kennedy's assassination, Aviva Kempner marks as a turning point in her life the moment she heard a radio report telling her that cancer killed Hammerin' Hank Greenberg.

What seemed a relatively minor sports news item on Sept. 5, 1986, about the death of a baseball old-timer and Hall of Famer the day before at age 75, was an epiphany for the filmmaker. Fresh from making her first documentary, about Jews who resisted the Holocaust, Kempner at that moment choose Greenberg's life as her next project.

What followed was an often painful, frustrating and seemingly endless odyssey scraping together funds to make the $1-million documentary about baseball's first Jewish superstar, a man Kempner never met or saw play. The result almost 14 years later is "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a film she is unashamed to describe as a love letter to a man she calls "the Jewish Jackie Robinson." The film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, has been getting strong critical reviews.


A hulking 6-foot, 4-inch first baseman from the Bronx, Henry Benjamin Greenberg was the hero of the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and 1940s. A two-time most valuable player, Greenberg led the Tigers to two World Series victories and four American League pennants in an era when the New York Yankees dominated virtually every year with players such as Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

Greenberg's career is often overlooked in discussions about all-time greats, which Kempner attributes in part to his playing in Detroit rather than on the East Coast as well as the nearly four seasons he lost to military service in World War II. Had Greenberg's career not been interrupted, his numbers would better reflect the kind of impact he had on the field.

That said, Greenberg's unsuccessful chase of Babe Ruth's home run record in 1938 dominated America's sports pages much as Roger Maris, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire would with their home run pursuits decades later. His 183 RBIs in the 1937 season seems almost insurmountable even in today's turbocharged era of power hitting and home-run friendly ballparks.

Greenberg's appeal to Kempner, 53, came partly because of the place he occupied in her childhood growing up in Detroit. He was the idol of her immigrant father, who used to take her to Tiger Stadium and tell her Hank Greenberg stories. The documentary, she says, is as much a tribute to her father as it is to Greenberg.

It also gave her the opportunity to counter what she feels is an annoying stereotype of Jewish men as wimps. "I wanted to show a strong, big Jew. Usually you see this nebbish, Jewish nerd," said Kempner, who's the film's director, writer and producer.

But what makes Greenberg imminently more fascinating than a lot of other 20th century athletes is how he transcended sports because of the times he lived in. The backdrop to Greenberg's career was an era of domestic anti-Semitism fueled by Hitler's rise in Germany. He was heckled at the ballparks by spectators and opposing players about as often as he saw a curveball heading his way. Some players would crassly suggest pitchers throw a pork chop at him to strike him out. Through it all, Kempner's film makes clear, he played with dignity.

"Detroit was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. That made him a role model even more," Kempner said.

To millions of Jewish youths and immigrant Jews assimilating into American culture through baseball, Greenberg achieved folk hero status.

Yet Greenberg was a reluctant icon. He was not very religious, rarely going to temple. Kempner believes it was because he was part of a generation that rebelled against the Orthodox Judaism of their parents. Greenberg's son, Steve, a consultant on the film, believes his father became disillusioned with organized religion as a whole.

A modest man, Greenberg preferred to frame his life in terms of the clutch hits he got rather than his stature as a Jewish role model or a social figure. Although a gregarious raconteur, Greenberg shunned introspective interviews. Kempner found only two television chats. In both of those interviews, with Dick Schaap and Howard Cosell, respectively, the dominant subject is baseball, not the discrimination he endured or the emotional scars he carried.

"My dad was a very private person. He would never have done a film about his life while he was alive. He never wrote his life story while he was alive," Steve Greenberg said.

Greenberg's widow, Mary Jo, says the film and clips, some of which she had never seen, reminded her of Greenberg's humbleness.

"He didn't see himself as an icon at all. That was part of his charm," she said.

Fortunately for Kempner, Steve Greenberg and his wife persuaded Hank in the last two years of his life to record his recollections on a Dictaphone they bought him. After Greenberg died, New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow was brought in to write what became Greenberg's autobiography, "Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life."

Los Angeles Times Articles