"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg"

The great ballplayer was one of the "chosen people" -- in more ways than one -- but hero worship can have its drawbacks.

Published October 31, 2000 10:31PM (EST)

I never really had a hero as a kid, but I did have a favorite ballplayer, Willie Davis. He was the first player I could recognize, and as the most exciting player on the succession of mediocre Dodger teams that greeted me as I came into baseball consciousness in late-'60s Los Angeles, he was naturally someone I cheered for and liked.

But I didn't idolize him. To this day I couldn't tell you his hometown or much of anything else about him without looking it up. When I was 10, Davis was traded to Montreal. Suddenly he was an aging journeyman, bouncing from team to team. Montreal, Texas, St. Louis, San Diego, Japan.

He was replaced in center field by Jimmy Wynn, who came over in a trade from Houston, no doubt breaking some young Lone Star hearts in the process. Wynn, the "Toy Cannon," had speed, power and charisma. He led the Dodgers to the pennant that first year and my friends and I loved him. The next year he hurt his arm. He was never the same. Two years and three teams later, he was out of baseball.

If I hadn't known it already (and I think I did, somehow), I learned it around that time: It's fine to admire someone you don't know, but don't put all of your emotional eggs in that one basket, because that basket might get traded to the Expos, as it were, or develop bone spurs in its throwing elbow, if I may stretch the metaphor to the breaking point.

I never experienced the pure, glorious, never-diminished love from afar described by the people in "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," who talk about so loving their man that they felt protected by him as they walked down the street. The film is in limited release, and it's worth seeing if it shows up near you.

Greenberg was a giant of a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and '40s. A Hall of Famer, he was one of the great RBI men in baseball history despite losing four years in his prime to World War II. He was also the first great Jewish ballplayer, and remains the towering figure in that select group. Only Sandy Koufax comes close to rivaling him, but Koufax was a little weird, shy to the point of reclusiveness, vaguely intellectual. Greenberg was a big lug.

And besides, Koufax only vanquished the Giants and the Yankees. Greenberg, just by being a big, strong, dominating Jewish athlete, but also by being the first star player to go off to the war, cleaned Hitler's clock.

It's hard to imagine in today's world what a foreign creature a Jewish baseball player must have seemed in the early '30s, or the kind of abuse Greenberg was subject to as a matter of course. Other players called him "Mo," for Moses. Fans screamed "Kike!" and "Sheeny!" at him. Greenberg recalls that when the Tigers had a series against New York, the Yankees used to call up one or two particularly loutish players from the minors just to ridicule him.

He also tells a story about reporting to Beaumont of the Texas League in his first professional season. One of his teammates, future major leaguer JoJo White, was confused by his appearance. The Georgia country boy had never seen a Jewish person before, and he was surprised that Greenberg didn't have horns.

The men who worshiped Greenberg as boys are old now, but they still get that wide-eyed-kid look when they talk about him in the film's many interviews. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz says that when he was young he thought Greenberg would become the first Jewish president. The late Walter Matthau confesses, "I joined the Beverly Hills Tennis Club because Hank Greenberg was a member. It's the only reason I joined. I don't play tennis."

The best line in the movie, and a great example of Jewish humor, comes from a Detroit fan who talks about how kids could get into the games free if they were with an adult, so the boys would gather at the gate and beg men to take them in. The men who agreed would just pick a kid at random from the crowd -- "OK, you." The old fan smiles: "Talk about the chosen people!"

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" ambles along, mixing interviews with fans, newsreel action shots, old photos and a couple of lovely Yiddish versions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" with clips of the man himself, who died in 1986 after a long and successful career as a baseball executive.

Greenberg seems down-to-earth and likable, and director Aviva Kempner -- who dedicates the movie in part to "The return of Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C." -- slips in just enough baseball history for nonfans to follow Greenberg's story without getting bogged down in diamond minutiae. (A quibble: There's a lot of talk about how Greenberg's physical prowess was a new thing for Jews to look up to, but no acknowledgment that a golden age of Jewish boxers was just drawing to a close about that time.)

Greenberg wasn't religious. His true faith was baseball. He was so obsessed with the game as a kid in the Bronx that he would take his lunch to the park so he wouldn't have to interrupt his playing to go home -- one block away -- to eat. But by 1934, his second year in the majors, he knew that however ambivalent he was about his religion, he'd become a symbol, a beacon, for other Jews. So, after struggling with the decision, he sat out a crucial game on Yom Kippur.

And they loved him for it. He recalls his embarrassment at getting a standing ovation in temple that day. Jews followed his career the way blacks would follow Jackie Robinson a decade later. In a neat historical twist, Greenberg was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, so he spent the last year of his career in the National League, where Robinson was a rookie with the Dodgers. His son recalls Greenberg saying that he didn't know what having it bad was until he saw what Robinson had to endure.

So look how far we've come. The Dodgers now have a fine Jewish outfielder named Shawn Green (from Des Plaines, Ill. -- and named Shawn!). I'm pretty sure his teammates don't call him "Mo," and fans, even in enemy San Francisco, don't scream "Kike!" and "Sheeny!" at him.

Growing up as a baseball-loving secular Jew in the 1970s, I had no need for a Jewish baseball hero. Not that I had much choice in the matter: Koufax retired when I was 3, and Richie Scheinblum, Ron Blomberg and Mike Epstein were hardly inspiring candidates for idolatry. The biggest problem my religion caused me in the baseball world was that religious school was on Saturday, so I had to miss NBC's "Game of the Week" during the school year (which is probably what turned me atheist).

If Willie Davis, a black man from Mineral Springs, Ark. -- I looked it up -- played a solid center field, hit .300 and stole some bases, why not latch onto him? I've taken far more abuse for my choice of baseball teams over the years than for being a Jew -- a fact that Hank Greenberg had more than a little to do with.

But glad as I am never to have experienced anti-Semitism in any serious way, I found myself a little envious of the people in "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" who had suffered it. They did need a hero, and they got one. And he never, ever let them down. "He was an honest-to-God Greek god," one of them says.

The hero worship business was all washed up by the time I came along. Through most of my childhood I had a poster of a football player on my bedroom wall. He didn't even play for the home team but he was so good I admired him anyway.

His name was O.J. Simpson.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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