With the timely release of the new DVD of my film The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg upon the heels of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, I want to share some thoughts on how Jackie Robinson’s heroic story impacted the making of my documentary about the iconic Jewish baseball player.
It’s downright shameful how politically incorrect the playing field was in those days. It’s not surprising, as baseball was America’s favorite pastime and back then racial hatred was woven into the fabric of this country. For all of us, Robinson will always be the courageous pioneer who integrated baseball with tremendous dignity.
As Jews, we should also remember how Hank Greenberg, too, played in a hostile environment. Among the stories in the film is the revelation from fellow Tiger, catcher Birdie Tebbetts, about the anti-Semitism that Greenberg faced while playing during the Golden Age Of Baseball. He says, “I think that Hank, on the ball field, was abused more than any other white ballplayer or any other ethnic group ballplayer, more than anyone except Jackie Robinson. But once the game was over, Hank could go any place. Jackie, unfortunately, couldn’t go any place except go out on the field and take the abuse.”
When I was finishing the Hank Greenberg film years ago, I realized how linked the two players were, and that I needed to show that relationship in the film. As there was a great story of Greenberg warmly greeting Robinson at first base when they collided in 1947, I decided that powerful story had to be the ending of the film.
In recent years, when the DVD of the film went out of print, I decided to go back to the interviews I did not use and edit them into a special disc of more than two hours of extras. I was especially motivated to make a new DVD when a young Jewish boy asked me if Greenberg had “been on steroids.” I realized then that I had to re-issue the film so that younger generations could learn what adversity Greenberg and other Jewish players encountered during the height of domestic anti-Semitism.
Among these new stories of what Jewish baseball players faced in the 1930s and 40s is one from fellow Tiger, Harry Eisenstat. The Jewish pitcher recalled a fan throwing a tomato at him and yelling, “What are you so upset about? Wasn’t I nice enough to take it out of the can?”
I cannot imagine how it is to go to work every day under the hostile circumstances Greenberg faced. He countered the hatred by hitting the pitches out of the stadium.
So it’s not surprising that when Hank did face Jackie on the day they collided at first base, there was a small passing of the baton from the Jewish player in the last year of his career to the courageous black player in his rookie year. The only thing missing from this inspiring story is that there was never a picture taken of them together at first base. Such a photo would have been a great accompaniment to this essay or the perfect ending to the movie.
Yet that image will always remain in my mind.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner directed and produced The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and is finishing a documentary film on Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. The new DVD of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is available at hankgreenbergfilm.org.