”The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” is a sprightly, lovingly researched, rather misty-eyed sports documentary that’s steeped in ethnic pride. At first, the movie, written and directed by Aviva Kempner, is inspiring in a conventional, ”here-treads-a-national-icon” way. Greenberg, the towering Jewish slugger from the Bronx, joins the Detroit Tigers as a first baseman in the early ’30s and becomes a power-hitting warhorse, leading the team from one World Series to the next. (They don’t actually win until 1935.)
In 1938, he hits 58 home runs, nearly smashing the defining landmark of baseball history: Babe Ruth’s record of 60 homers. As his triumph builds over the seasons, though, Greenberg is watched with special reverence by American Jews, who view him, with a mixture of jubilation and awe, as a pioneer mainstream surrogate — not the first American Jewish hero, perhaps, but the first to cross over into the pop mythology of American dreams.
In its vivid weave of newsreel footage, sports-page headlines, and effusive testimonials by figures like Walter Matthau and Alan Dershowitz, ”Hank Greenberg” captures how the very nature of Greenberg’s success — the act of smashing baseballs in front of adoring crowds with a fusion of style, timing, and brute force — made him the definition of a masculine god in the eyes of an ethnic subculture that believed, collectively, in brain over brawn.
For all of Greenberg’s talent and Gary Cooperish good looks, perhaps the most radical and trailblazing aspect of his career was simply his decision to retain his surname and remain proudly public about his religious identity. In that spirit, the movie made me wonder how the flavor of 20th-century American life might have been altered had, say, Kirk Douglas kept HIS real name (Issur Danielovitch Demsky), even as he went on to define the image of fearless, cleft-chinned American invincibility.