By Howard Goldin
BRONX, NEW YORK, May 10- Hank Greenberg was born more than a century ago; he hung up his major league uniform two-thirds of a century ago and he died a quarter of a century ago, yet very recently a new definitive biography of the baseball great was published and an expanded commemorative documentary film of his life was released.
Last week, John Rosengren, the author of “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes” [New American Library, New York, March 2013] and Aviva Kempner, director of the multi-award winning film, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” [The Ciesla Foundation, 2013] made two public appearances in New York City to promote their works and to rekindle memories of Greenberg for the older generation and educate those unfamiliar with Greenberg’s accomplishments.
The pair were at the Bergino Baseball Clubhouse at 67 East 11th Street and on Friday night, they appeared at the Jewish Community Center at 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Each spoke of the work produced and life of the baseball great. Each then answered questions and engaged the audience in a discussion of Greenberg. From the highly knowledgeable speakers and from their extensively researched works one can learn a great deal regarding the highly able and important former athlete as well as the times during which he was a famed athlete.
Both the book and the film very ably and interestingly tell the story of a man who lived a life that symbolized the conflicts and the triumphs of second-generation American Jews during the 1920s-1940s. Many individuals of that generation were drawn to assimilate into the American culture, yet, at the same time, wished to cling to their traditions and beliefs and not disappoint their parents. Greenberg symbolized as well as lived that life because he was the greatest Jewish athlete of the 1930s and 1940s and played Major League Baseball, which in that era was truly the national pastime.
Like millions of other American Jews, Greenberg, the son of Romanian immigrants, was born on the Lower East Side. At the age of six, he moved with his family to, what was then considered the country, the Bronx, where he was raised. The family lived at Crotona Park North throughout his childhood and early adulthood. He and his siblings attended public schools in the Bronx.
It was at James Monroe High School and at the fields of Crotona Park that Henry, the Americanized version of Hyman, the name his parents intended to give him, improved his skills for his future profession, baseball.
The tall, (6-4), athletic young man hungered for a career in professional baseball although his mother and father wished for all their children to complete a college education and enter a profession like medicine or law.
In the early 1930s, Greenberg’s ability led to his acceptance by one of the 16 major league franchises, the Detroit Tigers. The young man worked very hard to perfect his athletic skills and thus, became one of the best players of his era. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame a decade after his playing career ended. Greenberg’s ability, his higher salary than most other players in the big leagues at that time and especially, his religion led to his becoming a target of bigoted fans and players, even those on his own team.
That Greenberg was a star in Detroit in the 1930s may seem strange as two of the major promoters of anti-Semitism of that era, Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlan, were headquartered in the area and had large followings.
Although the animosity toward the Jewish star ballplayer was intense, especially during that period, it was not as vicious as that directed toward Jackie Robinson in the year he integrated the majors, 1947, which was also Greenberg’s final year in the big leagues. The relationship between Greenberg and Robinson was one of mutual respect and admiration.
Although the book and film were not jointly produced, they make a great companion item. Rosengren, the author of this book and several other award winning volume, gave due credit to Kempner’s film, which was originally produced more than a dozen years before his book was published, for inspiring his work. Kempner, who was raised in Detroit, was told of her father’s hero throughout her childhood. She decided to pursue the film project upon hearing of Greenberg’s death in 1986. The joint appearance was especially effective as both are exceptionally knowledgeable and each has a viewpoint that complemented the other.
Both creators, after years of research, became drawn to their subject, yet the works produced, although deservedly favorable toward Greenberg provide a portrait that is honest and balanced.
Also, each of the two pieces, book and film, adds to the worth of the other. The words of the biography amplify what is seen in the film and the scenes of the documentary bring life to the words of the volume. Each in itself is a superbly done project that the reader/viewer will enjoy and learn from. Together their value is even further enhanced. To those who are interested in baseball history and/ or wish to better understand the life lived by second generation Jews in the early to mid-twentieth century, the purchase of both items would be very much worthwhile.
For further information of the two works of art and history one can consult the following websites-www.hankgreenbergfilm.org and www.hankgreenberg.net.