Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

(From Left to Right: Ted Williams, Eddie Pellagrini, John F. Kennedy, Hank Greenberg)

So I just saw it. And I have to say it was time well spent. If you're a baseball fan, this documentary is must-see. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate what this larger-than-life baseball immortal did over the course of his storied career. Of course, it helps (for frame of reference), but it's certainly not a prerequisite for liking this film. I would recommend it to anyone who has ever stepped onto a baseball field and saw more than just grass and dirt and chalk.

I'm a numbers man myself, but the human interest angle is too good to pass up, so I'll talk about Greenberg's absurd numbers some other time, if it's all the same to you.

People interviewed in the documentary other than Greenberg include Hal Newhouser (Hall of Fame), Charlie Gehringer (Hall of Fame), Harry Eisenstat, Walter Matthau (who is hilarious), Alan Dershowitz (Josh Lyman anyone?), Michael Moriarty, Maury Povich, Greenberg's children, and Dick Schaap. My only complaint was Al Rosen's conspicuous absence; he only had one sound bite. Would've been nice to hear from Greenberg's heir apparent. I know they had a falling out over money, but still. Also would have been nice to hear from Bill Veeck, Greenberg's longtime friend and front office partner.

What really struck me as I watched the film was how hard Greenberg worked - and how hard he swung. As a young man, he was described as being very raw and sort of lanky. Obviously, he eventually filled out; you'd have to in order to hit 58 homers. But he didn't get from Point A to Point B overnight. It took a lot of elbow grease. Greenberg's work ethic is almost as impressive as his production. The fact that he was able to make the transition from first base to left field - and not miss a beat - is astonishing. The fact that he was willing to even do this speaks volumes about his character. Here you have the face of the franchise swallowing his pride for the sake of the team and a promising (but unproven) youngster named Rudy York. Can you imagine Edgar Martinez or Frank Thomas doing that? Didn't think so. And to top it all off, Greenberg actually won an MVP from both positions.
And then when you consider what Greenberg might have been able to do had he not missed 4.5 years because of the war - during his prime, mind you... You can speculate and you can extrapolate, but believe me you'll only aggravate yourself. It's a crying shame that Greenberg and others of his ilk (Ted Williams comes to mind) had to sacrifice some of their best years for the war. Not that it wasn't a worthy cause. Just... we would have won without them. So, from a selfish fan's standpoint, it's somewhat maddening.

One of my favorite anecdotes from the film describes Greenberg's innovation in the creation of the modern-day first baseman's mitt. Another great anecdote comes from the bonus features when Greenberg's son, Stephen, relates how Dave Winfield called Hank Greenberg his hero after reading his biography. Winfield was amazed that Greenberg could come back after the war and lead the American League in home runs with 44 in 1946. I was amazed that Greenberg said he "played from memory" when he came back. He was essentially saying that he wasn't the player he was when he left in 1941. And yet he finished 8th in MVP voting in 1946. And yet he finished with an OBP of .408 in 1947 for the Pirates, in spite of a career-low .249 average.

That's another thing that struck me: Greenberg ending his career in Pittsburgh. It should never have happened. The man deserved better. He deserved to be a lifelong Tiger. He deserved their loyalty. Be that as it may, there was one good thing that came from it. Greenberg had a chance to meet Jackie Robinson when he first entered the National League. Talk about a poetic revolving door. Now, that's something I would have liked to have seen. Two players who faced more prejudice you would be hard-pressed to find. After their encounter, Robinson said: "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg." High praise, indeed, coming from Mr. Robinson. (From Left to Right: Lou Boudreau, Lary Doby, Hank Greenberg)

After Greenberg retired, he became the Cleveland Indians' farm system director and later their general manager and part-owner along with Bill Veeck. During his tenure, he assembled more African American players than any other team executive in the Majors. Just another stat that adds to his legacy. Listen to the story about how he desegregated a hotel for his players on the Indians, and tell me that doesn't warm the cockles of your heart.

See The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. Take it from me: you won't regret it.

1 comment:

Melanie Greenberg said...

Glad you liked the movie. I always thought that, leaving aside my personal bias, it was worth the watch. And I agree it would have been nice to hear more from Al Rosen. As for Bill Veeck, I am pretty sure he passed away the same year as my grandfather. Otherwise, I would have loved to have heard from him because, based on the stories, he always seemed to me to be such a compelling character.