REDNECK FREAK John Rocker shot his mouth off about AIDS patients and foreigners last winter, inciting shock and dismay, and earning him a suspension. Yet when he sprinted from the bull pen for his first game back a few weeks ago, his hometown Atlanta fans cheered wildly. Anomaly? Nope, and it's not just a symptom of our times.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG
directed by Aviva Kempner
runs May 5-11 at Varsity
Baseball has always harbored racism and prejudice, a message made clear by this adulatory documentary about the Jewish slugger who rose from the streets and stickball games of the Bronx to become the Detroit Tigers' star first baseman of the 1930s and '40s. Accordingly, director Aviva Kempner deftly sews a serious underlining into her touchy-feely profile of Hammerin' Hank, reminding us that Rocker's inflammatory rhetoric is merely tradition.
Tall and handsome, Hank strives to become the best RBI-man the game has ever seen, but even as he drives home 182 in one season-one shy of the record-many fans and fellow players deride him for being a Jew. Throughout, Kempner uses contemporary interviews and dazzling newsreel footage to portray a young ballplayer with a Zenlike balance between his devotion to baseball and his religion. In one of the film's most dramatic anecdotes, Hank must choose between a big game and honoring Rosh Hashanah.
Greenberg's triumphs were bittersweet; he became the darling of Detroit and a hero to Jews in New York while still suffering the barbs of anti-Semitism. In another moving episode, Hank collides with a rookie named Jackie Robinson during a play at first; after dusting himself off, he counsels the first black major leaguer to ignore the vitriol coming from the stands and the dugouts. A grateful Robinson responded in the press, calling Greenberg an inspiration.
Kempner agrees, and convinces that the dignified Greenberg is a compelling role model even today. Now if only she could get John Rocker and his fans to see this remarkable film.