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With: Hank Greenberg, Hal Newhouser, Charlie Gehringer, Ira Berkow, Bob Feller, Dick Schaap, Alan Dershowitz, Walter Matthau
Written by: Aviva Kempner
Directed by: Aviva Kempner
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and mild language
Running Time: 90
Date: 15/10/1999

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Thank Hank

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Football may make good TV, but baseball was made for the movies. It's a sport for poets, writers, and scholars. Faces and body language are important, suspense is always mounting, and something is always going on, no matter how small. Many baseball movies fail to capture this magic, but The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg succeeds beautifully.

It's a wonderful documentary about the first openly Jewish baseball player. A hit at the 1999 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, this movie presents Greenberg as a Jewish hero, tall and handsome, and an athlete to boot. It also discusses Greenberg's problem of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur. (Many professional Jews today answer that question themselves based on what Greenberg did.) Most earlier Jewish ballplayers had changed their names to fit in, but Greenberg never hid his heritage. Greenberg became something like an early Jackie Robinson, putting up with bigotry from all sides. When Robinson began playing in the major leagues in the 1950's, Greenberg was there to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is full of great baseball stories, such as the fact that Greenberg went off to fight in World War II for four years, came back to baseball afterward and--in his first at bat in his first game--hit a home run. Greenberg also nearly broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record (the one that was eventually broken by Roger Maris, and then by Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa). Greenberg himself (who died in 1986) is interviewed, as well as other players, family members, and fans like the late Walter Matthau.

Directed by Aviva Kempner, this film follows standard documentary style; talking heads, photographs, narration, and clips from old baseball games. It also features clips from movies like Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and A Night at the Opera (1935). But when the subject is this interesting and inspiring, the old style works just fine. If you're a baseball fan, you shouldn't miss this film.

As of 2013, I still consider this one of the great sports movies. The the original DVD is out of print, so the Ciesla Foundation has released a brand-new double-disc DVD set loaded with extras. I never reviewed the original DVD, so I can't vouch for what's new and what isn't. Director Kempner provides a commentary track, and we get "over two hours" of additional interviews. Baseball fans get a Hank Greenberg bio and stats. There's also trailers, reviews and awards, and captioning/subtitles.

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