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The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

Aviva Kempner's 1998 ode to baseball legend Hank Greenberg is an appealing documentary, although it's bound to appeal more to some than others. For baseball fans, it doesn't examine the lyrical, almost mystic quality of the sport displayed in Ken Burns' remarkable documentary series Baseball, which combines the epic sweep of history with various poetic touches. As a documentary per se, it's traditional in structure, and it eschews what makes the best documentaries work: the desire to cast light into darkness and investigate controversial issues or individuals. But as a love-letter to an American hero of a bygone era, it's generally entertaining, even if it lacks an edge. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg recounts the youth and professional career of the legendary slugger, a 6' 4" lad from The Bronx who found fame and fortune on the most hallowed of American fields — the baseball diamond — in a era when anti-Semitism was rampant and many Jewish-American athletes adopted Anglo surnames (pulled over for a traffic ticket, legend has it he told the officer that he was a baseball player, to which the cop replied "There aren't any baseball players named Greenberg.") While often confronted with prejudice, straight-arrow Hank lived a life without much personal controversy, always prioritizing his career over the seductions of women and booze. What's more, when drafted by the Army just before America entered World War II, he left his $50,000-per-year job with the Detroit Tigers to become Pvt. Greenberg for $1,000 per annum, and he served until 1944 (rising to the rank of Captain) before returning to professional baseball, retiring a few years later. Greenberg was both a proud American and one of the greatest hitters to step up the plate, nearly breaking Babe Ruth's home-run record one season, but The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg also notes how he served as an inspiration for an entire community — Jewish-Americans who often felt treated as second-class citizens and found an immediate hero in the lanky first-baseman. Walter Matthau, Alan Dershowitz, and many others share their recollections, which are both touching and amusing (Matthau notes that he joined an L.A. tennis club so that he could meet Greenberg — he never played tennis, but was happy to have lunch with his idol). Fox's DVD release of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg offers a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 stereo. Extras include a commentary with writer/director/producer Kempner, additional interviews, the trailer, and textual supplements. Keep-case.
—JJB



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