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Friday, May 5, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Flaming love letter' was 13 years in the making

Special to The Seattle Times

Aviva Kempner is a short, feisty woman who, for our interview in the lobby of the Westin Hotel, wore draping black clothes with purple tennis shoes.

She plopped her feet on the round coffee table between us and ate a bagel and worried over nearby smokers. "Is that a smoking area?" she asked after sitting down. "I may have to move. We'll see."

Her talk was full of unfinished sentences and hyperbole, and she interviewed me as much as I interviewed her. She asked about my work, my family. She asked if I watched the TV show "Sports Night," which she thinks is brilliant. When I admitted, no, but that my sister watched it, she cut off my wavering explanation. "Tell your sister she's got good taste."

Kempner, 53, a freelance writer and filmmaker, was in Seattle in March to promote her second documentary. Her first, the award-winning "Partisans of Vilna," concerned Jewish resistance fighters during World War II.

The day before its Los Angeles premiere in 1985, she found out that Hank Greenberg, the slugging first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s, and the first great Jewish ballplayer, had died, and she immediately knew the subject of her second documentary. What she didn't know was that "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" would take 13 years to finish.

"I grew up in Detroit," she said. "And I grew up always hearing about Hank Greenberg. My father was an immigrant - took my brother and I to games - and he was crazy about baseball. I can remember my father either watching baseball or listening on the transistor radio."

Every time they passed the hate-mongering Father Coughlin's church in Detroit, her father would point his finger and say "That anti-Semite!" And every Yom Kippur she would hear about how Hank Greenberg, in the midst of the 1934 pennant race, sat down on the Jewish holiday to honor his heritage.

"I thought it was part of the Yom Kippur liturgy," she added, with a comic's shrug.

Greenberg was the tall, handsome response to fascism both home and abroad, and, as such, as Alan Dershowitz says in the film, he might have been the most important Jew to live in the 1930s. For Kempner, Greenberg still can shatter stereotypes.

"If you look at the image of the Jewish male on the screen, you think he's a nerd, a nebbish," she said.

"Hopefully Hank, 30 feet tall in the movie theater, is going to counter that."

She sat back in her chair. "There (are) a lot of heavy agendas I have in making my movie. I'm making a movie about the life of Hank. But the times (are) equally important."

Despite such heavy agendas, the movie she had in the back of her mind while making "Greenberg" was a comedy: Barry Levinson's "Diner."

"I think it is the perfect comedy, and so identifies how men love sports.

"That's what I wanted to capture. That wonderful obsession, adoration, involvement. . .

One fan, for example, carried a Hank Greenberg card on his wedding day. Another equates the final day of the 1938 season - when Greenberg stopped two home runs short of tying Babe Ruth's record - with the day JFK was assassinated, in terms of how it impacted him emotionally.

Then there's Walter Matthau, who joined the Beverly Hills Tennis Club simply because Greenberg was a member; Matthau himself didn't play tennis.

Of course such obsessions aren't limited to men. One of the more memorable fans is a woman, a groupie, who proposed marriage to Hank, and who is rather open and innocent about her infatuation.

"Women fans have big crushes on baseball players," Kempner said, admitting to two current crushes of her own (first basemen - she won't name names). When it was mentioned that young boys have crushes on ballplayers as well, Kempner acknowledged this before differentiating between the two.

"For us," she said, and her voice turned low and throaty, "It's a real, romantic . . ." Then she cut herself off. "This is a family movie, I don't want to be quoted otherwise."

Watching "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," which is a joyful celebration of baseball and Jewish culture, you wouldn't expect to find a lot of heartache behind it, but the film almost didn't get made, and in the end it took 13 years out of Kempner's life.

"It's called timing," she said. "When I was applying to the National Endowment for the Humanities (for a grant) on my Hank Greenberg film . . . there was a man named Ken Burns applying for his baseball movie. Need I say more?"

Burns, whose documentary "Baseball" was shown on PBS in 1994, got the grant. "I could have made this entire film in three years," Kempner said. "It is 10 years of fund raising. It's just what it is. Because I wanted to make it my way.

"You know," she continued, "I get criticized for making a love letter, so called, or that I don't have any dirt or scandal. Guess what? There isn't a lot of scandal. The worst thing you can say about Hank is that in his managing years he's really tough. But if fate gives me a story where Hank meets Jackie Robinson at the end of his career, you think I'm going to go beyond that in the film? That's the greatest ending.

"(My documentary) is a flaming love letter that's humorous and makes you cry and that's what I wanted to do. People loved Hank, there was a lot of love . . . Exposes? Go watch `20/20.' "

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"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" plays May 5-11 at the Varsity Theater.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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