Bio scores big with a mensch on base

Movie: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

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Our Rating: 4.00

What makes a sports hero? Simply put, it's winning. The intensely competitive nature of game play means that new stars are made almost every time athletes meet on the field. But there are occasions when a sports figure becomes a cultural icon, causing a throwaway lyric like "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" to hit a collective nerve.

Hank Greenberg may already be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but in her wonderful documentary, Aviva Kempner seeks to restore the slugger's place in America's social history.

Greenberg's athletic prowess was well-documented. Playing for the Detroit Tigers on three separate occasions -- in 1930; between 1933 and 1940; and for two more years following his service in World War II -- he led his team to the World Series four times. (They won twice.) His individual records include topping the American League in home runs three times and taking the RBI crown four times. In 1938, Hammerin' Hank hit 58 home runs, putting him two homers shy of Babe Ruth's record.

As Kempner points out, Greenberg had already been facing a steady stream of anti-Semitic heckling, and his decision to observe Jewish holidays during a pennant race had been front-page news. So his achievements served as a symbolic counterpoint to Adolf Hitler's banning of Jewish athletes from the Olympic Games and the tidal wave of hate crimes that commenced with the Kristellnacht.

Had Kempner merely drawn these issues in the form of simple, parallel lines, her documentary would still have been successful. But she goes beyond the obvious to create a well-rounded portrait of Greenberg, who, as she shows us, embodied quiet strength and dignity. (One of the film's most eloquent moments finds him crossing paths with then-rookie Jackie Robinson.)

The warmest and most lively recollections -- often humorous in tone -- come from Greenberg's fans. Their memories are still powerful enough that such seasoned politicians as Carl and Sander Levin are transformed back into starry-eyed little boys as they rechart the path their hero once trod.

A former Detroit resident, Kempner infuses her portrait of Hank Greenberg with a joie de vivre that makes her film a delight for the already-converted and nonfans alike.

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