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A Long Way to Home: The Making of 'Hank Greenberg'

By aviva kempner

Aviva Kempner's <em>The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg</em> recounts the career of the Jewish baseball player.

I was in Los Angeles in 1986 opening my first film, Partisans of Vilna, when I had heard on the radio that Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame baseball player for the Detroit Tigers, had died. I grew up in Detroit hearing wonderful stories about Hank Greenberg—how he almost broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, how he went to the synagogue on Yom Kippur in the middle of a pennant race. My father was an immigrant Jew, and like many immigrants to this country, one way you become American is you learn about baseball. Just like for the Black community, where Jackie Robinson was both a sports hero and a man who really stood up to the time, Hank Greenberg was a special name in my home growing up.

Being a child of Holocaust survivors and being an immigrant myself, I’m obsessed about what was happening in the ’30s and ’40s, and my father had also brought me up with stories about how Henry Ford had purchased anti-Semitic tracts that had been distributed at his dealerships, and how Father Coughlin had spouted hate. This was all in the time when Hank was playing. So I just knew that The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was going to be my next film.

I certainly didn’t expect to spend 12 years making it, but when you’re your own producer, you have to raise the funds. Yet my director role always superceded my producer role. I wanted to use the best music of the day—Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters, Cole Porter—so I had to pay rights. I also wanted to use footage from narrative films like Gentleman’s Agreement that depict social discrimination. I would make these directing decisions, and, working closely with my editor Marion Hunter, we just over-ordered footage because I wanted the best kind of film. I had to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on rights. In addition, my film may be the only one released last year that was shot on 16mm, edited on a Steenbeck and blown up to 35mm. It makes it more expensive.

Frankly, when I wasn’t shooting I was raising money. I spent thousands upon thousands of hours generating fundraising letters, and whenever I was on a plane, or on a train, I would ask the person next to me, “Are you a baseball fan? Do you know about Hank Greenberg?” I had real angels—the Foundation for Jewish Culture gave me a big grant, and certainly the Greenberg family came through all along. Norman Lear received my letter, and he loved the project so much that he wrote letters to all of his friends—everyone from Mel Brooks to Carl Reiner to Kirk Douglas to Jeffrey Katzenberg. And Irwin Young and DuArt Films waited for me to pay the bills. Those funders couldn’t be happier because they feel they have a piece of it.

I did also apply to the National Endowment for the Humanities, but I had unfortunate timing—I was applying at the same time that Ken Burns was applying for his Baseball series. So it was obvious who was going to get the funding, and it was also obvious that the NEH wasn’t going to fund two baseball films. But in terms of programming, Ken Burns proved that baseball’s a popular topic, so it helped me. I think what helped me more than anything was Mark McQuire and Sammy Sosa’s home run race in 1998; it opened up the fact that people love baseball.

What kept me going? One of the Ten Commandments says, “Honor thy father and mother.” So for me my first film, Partisans of Vilna, was made to honor my mother, who was a survivor passing as a non-Jew in Germany. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg was made to honor my dad. Once you start taking money from people, and you say you’re doing it to honor your dad—and my dad died in 1976, so he wasn’t there to say to me, “Why aren’t you doing it?”—it was just self-motivation. I was the keeper of the flame; I had to get this done. I remember when the Muhammed Ali film (When We Were Kings) came out, and they said it took them 22 years, so I didn’t feel so bad. At that point it was 11 years for me. I stopped several times, but I was always producing; I was always trying to raise more funds.

I have a joke: Does masochism make you a documentary filmmaker, or does documentary filmmaking make you a masochist? It’s like waging a battle. It’s a battle to get the story you want made, and you have to be prepared to be in the trenches. And I say my trench, my warfare, is changing people’s opinions and showing a different kind of character. It’s a cultural battleground.

Now I feel like a cinema Cinderella. That’s the strange thing about timing: It was the turn of the century, people were reflecting back, and the film did well commercially because it was after what Sammy Sosa and Mark McQuire had done in that glorious race. But more important, it means that that many people saw it and now know who Hank Greenberg was. And there’s no greater satisfaction.