Wednesday, December 26, 2007

'Remembering Greenberg'

Every day that I go into the office, I walk past one of many poster-sized covers of The Jewish Journal that always grabs my attention.

Ryan Braun might be nicknamed The Hebrew Hammer, and he deserves it. But this cover is of the original semitic slugger, Hank Greenberg.

The former Tigers star bears no relation to me. (Need proof? Just watch me play softball.) But few names in sports that aren't Koufax merit more pride for the Tribe than Hank Greenberg.

Long before Shawn Green said he wouldn't play on Yom Kippur, and then did, Greenberg sat out a crucial game against the Yankees. The 2000 story focused on the documentary, "In the Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."
Greenberg's greatness is undisputed. In a career interrupted for most of five seasons by World War II, the lumbering first baseman hit 331 home runs,compiled a .313 career batting average and knocked in 1,276 runs. In 1937, his 183 runs batted in were one fewer than Lou Gehrig's league record. His 58 home runs in 1938 were second to the 60 hit by Babe Ruth in 1927. "No question that he was the greatest Jewish hitter of all time," said Steve Greenberg, one of Greenberg's two sons and a former deputy commissioner ofMajor League Baseball. "But that's not how he wanted to be remembered. If you talk to players of that era, they knew he was one of the greatest players.Ted Williams said he was his idol." In Ms. Kempner's homey documentary — a quilt of newsreel footage, interviews and spirited music selections like Mandy Patinkin singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Yiddish — Greenberg is a quiet hero flawed only by his fielding range. To the worshipful fans who adored him as "Hankus Pankus,"Greenberg was a "messiah," "a Jewish god," a Moses-like savior who refuted the stereotypesabout what Jews could do.

"I had this Captain Marvel, Hank Greenberg, on my shoulder," Rabbi Reeve Brenner says in the film. "He was my big brother, my mishpocheh" (family). Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor, adds, "He was what "they" said we could never be." When the Tigers traded Greenberg to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, Don Shapiro, an oral surgeon and fan, felt as if "your bubbe" — grandmother — "moved to Mississippi." The passion is poignant, humorous and over the top, like Ms. Kempner's. Yet those who admired Greenberg know his achievements came in the face of ethnic baiting by fans and rival players and the anti-Semitic rantings of the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, the so-called radio priest from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, and Henry Ford.

"At the height of domestic anti-Semitism and the Nazis overrunning Europe, here was a Jewish player so good, so powerful and almost breaking Ruth's record," Ms. Kempner said."Two months after Hank nearly broke Ruth's record, Kristallnacht happened in Germany." In a 1984 interview used in the film, Greenberg recalled: "There was always some leatherlung yelling at me. I found it was a spur to make me do better because I could never fallasleep on the field. As soon as you struck out, you weren't only a bum, you were a Jewish bum."

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