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

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Greenberg showed kids, and fascists, what a Jewish man could be

Special to The Seattle Times

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Movie review

XXX 1/2 "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," documentary written and directed by Aviva Kempner. 89 minutes. Varsity. No rating; suitable for general audiences.

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Near the end of Aviva Kempner's documentary, "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," the 1930s Detroit Tigers slugger talks about his possible influence on kids. "If I set a good example for them," he says in modest, shrugging tones, "maybe it will in some way affect their lives."

Much of the rest of the documentary is dramatic evidence how much the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound Greenberg affected the lives of kids in the 1930s and '40s - especially Jewish kids. Fans ranging from rabbis (Max Ticktin) to actors (Walter Matthau) to U.S. senators (Carl Levin) weigh in. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz is typical in his enthusiasm.

"He defied every single stereotype," Dershowitz says. "He was they. He was what they all said we could never be. He defied Hitler's stereotype. And for that reason I think he may have been the single most important Jew to live in the 1930s."

Greenberg, a first-generation Jew, born on New Year's Day in 1911, spent much of his childhood on the ball fields of the Bronx. Interestingly, the stereotype that Dershowitz talks about ran both ways. In the minors Greenberg was stopped by a cop who, when informed of his profession, said disbelievingly, "Whoever heard of a baseball player named Greenberg?" Yet many Jews felt the same way. In the neighborhood it was said that the Greenbergs had such nice children, but "too bad one of them has to be a bum."

That all changed in 1934. It wasn't just that "Hankus Pankus," as he became known, was a good ballplayer - a perennial .300 hitter with serious home-run and RBI power. At a time when anti-Semitism was rampant and more or less condoned, and many Jews attempted to pass as Gentiles, Greenberg, though not a religious man, never denied his heritage.

He played in Detroit, a hotbed of anti-Semitism (home to both Henry Ford, who wrote "The International Jew" in the 1920s, and the hate-mongering radio broadcaster Father Coughlin), but baseball often united the city over and above racism. When a rabbi, perhaps fudging his interpretation of the Talmud, said it was OK for Greenberg to play on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it was news all over the city. When Greenberg hit two home runs that day to lead Detroit to a 2-1 victory, the Detroit Free Press ran the headline "Happy New Year" in Hebrew.

Similarly, when Greenberg decided to sit out the more holy day, Yom Kippur (Detroit lost 5-2), Edward A. Guest, a famous versifier, wrote a poem that is startling for how undated it seems: "We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he's true to his religion - and I honor him for that!"

As the decade progressed, and Greenberg threatened first Lou Gehrig's American League RBI record in '37 and Babe Ruth's home-run record in '38, his significance grew. He became the tall, powerful, handsome response to fascism both abroad and at home. Every home run he hit, he said, was like hitting one against Hitler.

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" is cleverly stitched together from interviews, newsreel footage, newspapers and snippets of old Hollywood films. But what often makes documentaries are the interviewees, the talking heads, and in this, director/writer Kempner, who previously produced the award-winning documentary "Partisans of Vilna," and who spent 13 years on this project, chose well.

Some of her talking heads are famous, some are members of the Greenberg family (Hank himself died in 1985), but many are simply fans from the Detroit area. At turns obsessed, poignant and funny (Don Shapiro and Bert Cohen are like the "Car Talk" guys of baseball), they all share a palpable pride in what one man accomplished for himself and all Jewish Americans.

"Hank Greenberg" is an unabashed paean and just a joy to watch. It should be required viewing for all modern athletes who disregard their role-model status.

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

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