Baseball biopic hits a home run

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Who could resist a movie that begins with a rousing chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," sung by actor Mandy Patinkin - in Yiddish?

It's an appropriate opening pitch for "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," a warmly human look at the career of major-league baseball's most famous Jewish star.

Hailed by some as a Moses of the athletic world, Greenberg was also attacked by bigots with anti-Semitic agendas inside and outside the ballpark.

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He took the best and worst of it in stride, emerging as a hugely popular figure who embodied the best that sports have to offer. Aviva Kempner's movie pays exactly the sort of tribute he deserves without making exaggerated claims for him as a personal or professional icon.

Greenberg entered pro baseball in the early '30s, becoming a superstar in 1938 when he almost broke Babe Ruth's record for hitting the most home runs in a season. He left the playing field after 1947 - an unwanted move from the Detroit Tigers to the Pittsburgh Pirates helped speed his retirement - and spent several years as a front-office executive.

Although his outlook on life was secular rather than religious, he recognized his status as a Jewish role model and cultivated a suitable public image. Should he play on Rosh Hashana, violating a holy day but helping his team cinch the pennant? Yes, said a rabbi who advised him, and who surely cheered when Greenberg's two homers helped win the game. Should he play on Yom Kippur, the year's holiest day? Greenberg went to his synagogue instead - earning a different kind of cheer from his admirers, even though the Tigers lost that game without him.

It took an umpire to stop members of the Chicago Cubs from hurling anti-Jewish slurs at Greenberg during a World Series game in 1935, but he seemed strengthened by such experiences. When the legendary Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier during Greenberg's last year as a player, drawing a barrage of racist hostility, the Jewish-American star knew what the African-American rookie was facing. In later years, Robinson remembered Greenberg as the first player from an opposing team to give him moral and practical support.

Kempner captures her hero's career in its social and political context, but never loses sight of baseball's sheer fun and Greenberg's simple humanity. Additional color comes from on-screen interviews with fans as different as lawyer Alan Dershowitz, politician Carl Levin, and actor Walter Matthau, who recalls joining a country club just to hang out with his big-league acquaintance.

In short, you don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg."

*Not rated; contains no objectionable material.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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