Greenberg’s Story Told on Film
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a humorous and nostalgic documentary about an extraordinary baseball player who transcended religious prejudice to become an American icon. Detroit Tiger Hammerin’ Hank’s accomplishments during the Golden Age of Baseball rivaled those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
This compelling documentary examines how America’s first Jewish baseball star was a beacon of hope to American Jews who faced bigotry during the Depression and World War II. Included in the colorful collage of forty-seven interviews are Hank Greenberg and family members; sports figures Ira Berkow, Ernie Harwell, Joe Falls and Dick Schaap; fellow players Bob Feller, Charlie Gehringer and Ralph Kiner; fans Alan Dershowitz, Congressman Sander Levin and Senator Carl Levin; and actors Walter Matthau, Michael Moriarty, and Maury Povich.
The film also features famous scenes from such Hollywood classics such as Gentleman’s Agreement, Night at the Opera, Pride of St. Louis and Woman of the Year as well as dramatic historical footage.
“Hammering Hank” Greenberg’s career spanned the years when our country faced the enormous challenges of the Great Depression and World War II. He played first base and outfield for the Detroit Tigers from 1933 to 1946 and for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947. Known as a self-made star and notorious for his hours of daily practice, Greenberg was recognized by sportswriters as “one of the greatest power hitters.”
In 1938, he achieved tremendous fame when he fell two homeruns short of matching Babe Ruth’s record of sixty home runs in a single season. He was chosen Most Valuable Player in 1935 as a first baseman and again in 1940 as a left fielder. He batted in more than one hundred runs per season seven times in his career. His lifetime batting average was .313 and his career home run total was 331. In 1956 he received baseball’s highest honor when he was voted into the Hall of Fame.
The highlights of his inspirational career constantly made the national headlines and captured the imagination not only of sportswriters but also of his loyal fans. His l938 attempt to beat Babe Ruth’s home run record was followed closely in the press and by baseball fans all over America. In May 1941, Greenberg again made headline news as the first star ballplayer to enlist in the Armed Services. In June 1945, he was the first ballplayer to attempt a comeback after so long an absence from the sport. He did so successfully by hitting a home run in the first game he played upon his return. In l947, Greenberg set another benchmark when he became the first major league baseball player to earn more than $100,000 per year.
Hank Greenberg was the most famous Jewish ballplayer and thus faced many unique dilemmas. In 1934, a classic drama unfolded when Greenberg was forced to choose between his religion and career as an athlete. That year, the Detroit Tigers had a chance to win the pennant, a feat which had eluded the team since 1909. After receiving the blessing of a local rabbi, Greenberg decided to play on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and belted two crucial home runs to lead the Tigers to a 2-1 win.
That same year Greenberg chose not to play on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, however, because it is the most sacred of all Jewish holidays. Though he had played the previous day and had driven in a winning homer, Greenberg went to synagogue instead of the stadium despite the pennant race. Although the Tigers lost that day, “Hammerin’ Hank” won the respect of the local community and the nation. A syndicated poet, Edgar Guest, was inspired to write an ode to Greenberg, which concluded:
“We shall miss him in the infield and
shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion — and I
honor him for that!”
His most devoted fans were the first and second generation of American Jews whose fanatic appreciation for baseball was their ‘badge as Americans’. During the thirties, the New York City ball clubs were on the lookout for a Jewish star to draw crowds in the largest Jewish city in the U.S. Ironically, they did not recruit Greenberg who grew up in their backyard. Yet Jewish Americans all over the country avidly watched Greenberg throughout his career, and he became the ethnic standard-bearer for them. The generations that followed idolized Greenberg as an American Jewish folk hero.
Shortly after Greenberg’s death on September 4, 1986, New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow best explained why Greenberg was so worshiped:
“I never saw Hank Greenberg play, but he was a legendary ballplayer, especially in Jewish households like mine. He was the first truly great Jewish ballplayer and, Ironically, a power hitter in the 1930’s when the position of the Jews in the world — especially, of course, in Hitler’s Germany — grew weaker. I remember my uncles talking about the Greenberg’s baseball exploits as if he were a kind of beacon for them.”
Greenberg often faced the challenge of anti-Semitism in major league baseball. During the 1935 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, the umpire had to intervene in order to stop the catcalling aimed at Greenberg from the Chicago bench. This is only one of the many personal experiences which later made him sensitive to other ballplayers who also faced prejudice and bigotry. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Greenberg empathized with the obstacles he faced and gave his support. Robinson remembered Greenberg as the first opposing-team player in the big leagues to give him encouragement.
Upon retirement, Greenberg was one of the few players to make a successful transition from the field to the front office. He was a part-owner and general manager of the Cleveland Indians from 1948-1958 and a vice president of the Chicago White Sox from 1959-1960.
Missed the 1941-1944 seasons due to service in the Army.
In 1937, fell one RBI short of Lou Gehrig’s record of 184.
1938, came within two home runs of then-record of 60 set by Babe Ruth.
Elected to All Star Team in 1937, 1938 and 1940.
Selected as AL MVP in 1935 and 1940.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956
Served as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians, 1948-57.
Served as Vice President of the Chicago White Sox, 1959-63.
Goodbye Mr. Ball Goodbye
Written by Bill Coryn & Harold Smith
Performed by Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby & Hank Greenberg
Courtesy of the Philco Radio Show
We’ve heard about those old time dangerous pirates
of Captain Kidd and Silver John the Long
but we prefer those modern dangerous Pirates
as our victims walk the plank we sing this song
Oh, goodbye, Mr. Ball, goodbye
You are going to see an awful lot of sky
don’t hang around for Richard to open up that door
when Hankus Pankus hits you where you’ve never been hit before
Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
You had better kiss your relatives good bye
when Hank comes to the plate, Ball,
you’re gonna to be out late so
Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
Say hello there to the sun up in the sky
a plate is mighty handy to eat the lean and fat
but not when Hank the Greenberg serves it up with his big bat
Oh, goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
Go fly ’til the blue has met the dawn up in the sky
when Hank gets home run itch, Ball,
you’re going to drop a stitch
so goodBye Mr ball, goodBye
Oh nothing could be finer
than a partner like Ralph Kiner
in the outfield
and I am confirmin’ that I’ll work for Billy Herman
in the infield
Oh goodbye, Mr Ball, goodbye
you had better kiss your relatives goodbye
Wait a minute, when the count is 2-0 and I let that third one go,
what happens then?
Oh Goodbye Mr Hank goodbye
when I think I’ve got a hit and it winds up in Slaughter’s mitt
How about that?
Oh goodbye Mr. Hank Goodbye
Oh, Mr. Greenberg
Goodbye Mr. Hank Goodbye
Speaking of Greenberg
by Edgar A. Guest, 1934
The Irish didn’t like it when they heard of Greenberg’s fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphy’s and Mulrooney’s said they never dreamed they’d see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a “double” when Hank Greenberg came to bat.
In July the Irish wondered where he’d ever learned to play.
“He makes me think of Casey!” Old Man Murphy Dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openlly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off pitcher Rhodes-they cheered lime mad for that.
Came Yom Kippur-holy fast day world wide over to the Jew-
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!”
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion-and I honor him for that!”
© Copyright The Ciesla Foundation