Baseball postsTuesday April 02, 2013
Q&A with Aviva Kempner about Hank Greenberg – Part I
In March 2000, in a hotel lobby in downtown Seattle, I interviewed director Aviva Kempner, who was visiting Seattle to promote her documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which was showing at the Jewish Film Festival of Seattle. Here’s my review of the documentary and my profile of Ms. Kempner from back then.
This month, Ms. Kempner will be appearing with a friend, John Rosengren, author of “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes,” at events in Washington, D.C. on April 4; in New York April 25; at the Yogi Berra Museum on April 26; and at the Jewish Community Center in New York on the evening of April 26. John’s full schedule can be found here.
What follows is the full Q&A with Ms. Kempner, edited and condensed.
There’s a scene in “Portnoy’s Complaint” that reminds me of what you do with immigrant parents and baseball in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” As a boy, Alexander Portnoy is at the park playing baseball with his father, who is calling out to him, “Okay, Big Shot Ballplayer.” But he’s gripping the bat with his hands reversed, and Alexander is overcome with sadness at how little his father, the great man in his life, knows. I’m curious if you tried to get Philip Roth for the documentary?
I wanted to but he said he wouldn’t be filmed. He’s very reclusive. [Notices a man at a nearby table lighting a cigarette.] Is that a smoking area? I may have to move.
What Roth writes about, which is the one thing I wanted on film, was how his grandfather, who was an Orthodox Jew, would get up every morning and pray. Do you know what tefillin is? Well, it’s a very Jewish thing. Orthodox Jews put on leather straps every morning. [Roth's] grandfather would lay tefillin every morning and pray and smell the leather straps. He would get up every morning, take his baseball mitt [smacks palm], and go like that.
That’s when I knew I was onto something. I had already been working on the film five years and when I read Philip Roth I realized that for the children of immigrants, and some immigrants themselves, baseball was the way you became American. It became a new religion.
Not just for Jews. This was true for Italian immigrants, Irish immigrants. That’s why I wanted the beginning of the film to be what baseball was to immigrants. Our parents spoke with accents, they could hardly understand the game. The scene in “The Pride of the Yankees” where Lou Gehrig’s mother, says “What are those pillows doing there?” with an accent.
A German accent.
It’s close enough to Yiddish. That and “Gentleman’s Agreement” were the first Hollywood clips I decided to use, and then after that it became a structure of my film.
Why use such clips?
Well, look it. I’m of the view that the most important source of footage in my film is the archival shots that were shown in the movie theaters: the MovieTone footage of the World Series and things. I paid an arm and a leg to get it and worked with my editor to craft it into the film.
But I’m also under the belief that feature films can be archival—can also connote an era or a feeling. When I’m talking about domestic anti-Semitism, well, I think “Gentleman’s Agreement” is the best and only great film out of Hollywood on domestic anti-Semitism [at the time]. That scene of checking into the hotel is a incredible personification of the social discrimination against Jews. There are other scenes where the Gregory Peck character uses the name Green or Greenberg to get access. Well, no one can tell me that when Laura Hobson wrote that book she wasn’t thinking of Hank.
Plus I can say that I have Gregory Peck in my film.
Any footage you heard about but couldn’t get?
We don’t know what we didn’t get. What I’m waiting to hear is … I’m going to be on this tour [for the documentary], and the film’s going to be out for the next year, and somebody’s going to come to me and say, “You know what I just found in my grandfather’s attic?”
There are a lot of stills I didn’t use. I love black-and-white. I just had to limit how much I had—there was once a three-hour version of the film—but I’m hoping to do a photo essay that accompanies the movie.
There’s a three-hour version?
A three-hour rough cut that will never be seen. I’m afraid to say that out loud. When I say it publicly someone always asks, “Can I buy the three-hour version?” Unlike a lot of new Hollywood movies, which are three hours, I think people have a capacity [for how much they can watch].
I’m fighting something greater: getting people in to see a documentary. I just had to make it quick and strong and fast, and that’s why it’s 95 minutes.
What did you hate to cut?
A lot of things. Hank’s first date. He was in North Carolina and he got fixed up and went on a date and we had footage—guy going into a shop with a girl—I mean it was an adorable scene. I tend, because I’m a female and very romantic, that’s why I have so much romance in my film. I think it’s part of baseball. I think women fans have big crushes on baseball players. Harriet Colman is me.
Men fans too.
Well, gay men probably...
Or even straight men. Little boys.
Well, that’s actually interesting … Although I think the heroism is a little different. For us, it’s a real, romantic...
Actually there’s two first basemen--
You cut yourself off there.
This is a family movie, I don’t want to be quoted otherwise.
But the important thing is that crushes have always existed in sports. The single most-asked question I get is “Where did you find [Harriet Colman]? Where did you find the groupie?” The reason I met her is that someone came up to me in my synagogue seven years ago and said I know you’re doing a film on Hank Greenberg—you know I’ve been working on this for over 15 years—and says to me, “If you’re going to make a film about Hank Greenberg, you have to interview my mother. Hank was everything for her.” Luckily I listened.
The second-most asked question is, “Why isn’t Sandy Koufax isn’t in the film?”
Steve Greenberg, Hank’s son, who is so eloquent and knowledgable in the film, I asked him about interviewing Sandy. He said he’d met Sandy through the years, and Sandy wasn’t really influenced [by Hank]—you know, it’s really 30 years difference. I also know Sandy’s a recluse so I never approached him. However, my month has been made because I recently received a message that Sandy saw the film and loved it. A lot of things are making me float lately but that’s a top floater.
Part II of the three-part Q&A tomorrow ...
“Where did you find the groupie?” Harriet Colman in “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg”
Opening Day 2013
I'm not a fan of starting the baseball season Sunday night on ESPN. Sorry. Opening Day for me is the Cincinnati Reds playing on a Monday and everyone playing a day later. But history and tradition are things we lose when they get in the way of revenue, so ... poof. Instead we get the game everyone's itching to watch, the Rangers vs. the Astros, tonight at 5 PM PST. Easter dinner in Texas, April Fools for the rest. Smart, Bud.
The AL West gets the Houston Astros this year. They and their $25 million payroll are in our division. Unrelated suggestion? The Angels should not be allowed to be called “The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.” It's the “Artist formerly known as Prince” of baseball names. Suggestions welcome. California Angels, maybe?
Our season ticket group, led by a personal friend of Raquel Welch, divvied up the M's baseball tickets Tuesday night. I only have six, which seems plenty. Seeing Baltimore in May, the Yankees in June, Angels and Twins in July, Texas in August and Houston in September. August is my favorite month to go to games in Seattle. It's when you can get a hint of the summer swelter melting everyone else. April can be awful, weatherwise, which is why I skipped it. And if it's not? Just walk down and buy some. The perks of 10 years of losing teams and dwindling attendance.
OK, time to check out the active leaders (career ranking in parentheses).
- Games: Derek Jeter, NYY: 2,585 (40th)
- At-Bats: Derek Jeter, NYY: 10,551 (16th)
- Hits: Derek Jeter, NYY: 3,304 (11th)
- Doubles: Todd Helton, Col: 570 (22nd)
- Triples: Carl Crawford, Bos.: 114 (T-110th)
Three of the top four in at-bats are Yankees: Jeter, A-Rod, Ichiro. Only Ichiro is healthy. In hits, A-Rod is 99 away from 3,000. Don't think he's not thinking it. Ichiro is 394 away. Don't think he's not thinking it, either.
Jose Reyes, meanwhile, is within three of Crawford in triples. Reyes still hits them, too: 38 over the last three years. Crawford is slowing down: overburned with moola. The two now meet up in the same division.
Other retirees since last Opening Day: Ivan Rodriguez (April 2012) and Johnny Damon (maybe).
Jeter, looking for another single. Once he's off the DL in June. Or August.
- Home Runs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 647 (5th)
- RBIs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 1.,950 (7th)
- Runs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 1,898 (10th)
A-Rod is gone for at least half the season but he's only 47 RBIs from moving past Musial, Gehrig and Bonds for 4th place all-time. Runs scored is more difficult. Plus he's got Jeter on his ass: only 30 behind. Could Jeter pass him this year? If Jeter's in scoring position with A-Rod up, does A-Rod pause? Poor A-Rod. Front page of the NY Times today is all about him: “Hitched to an Aging Star: Anatomy of a Deal, and Doubts.” More to come, I'm sure.
- Walks: Jason Giambi, Cle., 1,334 (34th)
- Strikeouts: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 2,032 (4th)
This means Jim Thome, 42, has retired. Or hasn't. But he hit only 8 HRs last year, for 612 career. Eighteen shy of Junior. Hey, if it's truly over, he wound up only 50 strikeouts from breaking Reggie Jackson's once invincible record. No worries. Here comes Adam Dunn (2,031 and counting).
Interesting seeing Giambi atop the active career walks, with A-Rod third. Fun fact: Willie Randolph, the light-hitting second-baseman with the Bronx Zoo Yankees of the 1970s, had more career walks than A-Rod has: 1,243 to 1,217. Another fun fact: Jason Giambi is with Cleveland now. Missed that story, too.
- Stolen Bases: Juan Pierre, Mia.: 591 (19th)
- Caught Stealing: Juan Pierre, Mia.: 197 (7th)
The Juan Pierre experiment didn't quite work out in Philly, did it? But he improved his SB ratio greatly. Batting less often, he stole 10 more bases (37 to 27) and got caught 10 fewer times (17 to 7). Maybe, as I suggested last year, Chase Utley helped.
- Batting Average: Albert Pujols, Ana: .324 (T-41st)
- On-Base Percentage: Todd Helton, Col.: .418 (20th)
- Slugging Percentage: Albert Pujols, Ana: .607 (5th)
- On-Base-Plus Slugging: Albert Pujols, Ana: 1.022 (6th)
Albert may be a Prince but his percentage numbers are dropping like rocks. Since last year, he's lost four points in batting average, 10 in slugging, 14 in OPS. And he's signed thru when again? 2050? Talk about hitched to an aging star.
Helton is dropping, too. If he drops a bit further, Edgar, Our Man Edgar, currently 21st all time in OBP, will move into 20th place. Something to cheer for. M's fans have so little these days. Well, perfect games aside. I'll keep you posted.
- Offensive WAR: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 112.2 (T-13th)
- Defensive WAR: Adrian Beltre: 22.1 (33rd)
- WAR for Position Players: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 115.5 (12th)
Despite a bad year, or a vastly mediocre one, A-Rod's offensive WAR still went up. And the guy he's tied with? Lou Gehrig. But Lou went out a different way than A-Rod is going out. Unless there was a “Hitched to an Aging Star” NY Times headline in 1939 that we don't know about.
I still have a problem with WAR. There's no standard yet. Baseball Reference has their version of WAR, others have others. It's like they're still working on the formula. It's New Coke. Fans are wondering what was wrong with Classic Coke.
In 2012, both the Angels and SI said “Albert.” Did SI then say “Jinx”? For April, Albert had a .217 batting average, with no homeruns and 4 RBIs. He kinda turned it around, but not in Albert fashion. For the first time, he's not the best player on his team.
These categories are now wide open with the retirement, in every sense but the official announcement, of Jamie Moyer, who last year played for the Colorado Rockies (released June 1), the Orioles (three starts with its Triple A squad with a 1.69 ERA, released June 28), and Toronto (two starts with its Triple A squad, 8.18 ERA, released July 5). Dude surely has a coaching future ahead. Doesn't he?
- Games Started: Andy Pettitte, NYY: 491 (49th)
- Innings Pitched: Andy Pettitte, NYY: 3,130.2 (113th)
- Wins: Andy Pettitte, NYY: 245 (T-51st)
- Losses: Derek Lowe, Tex: 157 (T-131st)
Milestone alert! Roy Halladay is one win away from 200. Tim Hudson is three wins away from 200. I remember seeing Hudson in Triple A as a youngster. Yes, it was a long time ago.
Here's an indicator of how hard it is to win 300 games these days. C.C. Sabathia has 191. Johan Santana 139. Cliff Lee 125. Justin Verlander 124. And King Felix of Seattle? 98.
- Strikeouts: Andy Pettitte, NYY: 2,320 (44th)
- Walks: Barry Zito, SF: 1,004 (T-109th)
- Homeruns Allowed: Mark Buehrle, Tor: 300 (48th)
Give this to Andy Pettitte: He's career leader in the categories you want (wins, strikeouts), and not the categories you don't (losses, walks). Yeah, he played for the 21st-century Yankees, which made it easier to win and tougher to lose; but none of that had to do with his strikeout-walk ratio.
P.S. Apparently Javier Vasquez retired. Or not. But he's out for the season anyway.
Pettitte, ready to pitch another 50 innings; 75 tops.
- Complete Games: Roy Halladay, Phi: 66 (T-644th)
- Shutouts: Roy Halladay, Phi: 20 (T-244th)
- WAR for Pitchers: Roy Halladay, Phi.: 66.6 (40th)
Again, anyone who doesn't think complete games is the lifetime record least likely to be broken needs to look at the parentheses above. Halladay, the active leader, is 644th on the lifetime list. And he's not moving anywhere. Last year, he completed no games and threw no shutouts. So how about second in active CGs? That would be C.C. Sabathia ... with 35. Which is off the charts. The bottom of. C.C. would need three more complete games just to make the top 1,000 in this category. After a time, we won't even count these things. “Daddy, what does that mean—a complete game?” “Well, son, in olden times...”
Now to the Mo categories:
- Games: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 1051 (8th)
- Saves: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 608 (1st)
- WHIP (Walks/Hits per Inning Pitched): Mariano Rivera, NYY: 0.9978 (2nd)
- ERA (5 yrs. minimum): Mariano Rivera, NYY: 2.214 (13th)
- Adjusted ERA: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 206 (1st)
Trivia questions. Who is second on the active saves list to Mo's 608? Answer: Joe Nathan, Tex., with 298. Who is second in active ERA to Mo's 2.21? Adam Wainwright, 3.15. There's no one close to Mo. Whatever adjusted ERA is, he's No. 1 by far (second: Pedro Martinez, 154). He's second all-time in WHIP (to Addie Joss), and my favorite, being old school, is the career ERA thing. Everyone ahead of him was mostly a 19th century pitcher (Jim Devlin, Jack Pfiester) or the best of the early 20th century pitchers (Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson). The closest post-WWII guy is Hoyt Wilhelm in 45th place. The closest active player is the aforementined Wainwright in 228th. Again, the question isn't whether Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. The question is how far up do you want to place him among the greatest pitchers of all time?
Even so, it says something about how old these Yankees are. Of the 34 categories above, 18 are owned by Yankees. The Age of the Yankees has been replaced by the age of the Yankees.
Addie Joss of Cleveland is the only pitcher with a lower career WHIP than Mariano Rivera. This card, part of the Leonard Brecher Tobacco & Chewing Gum Card series, is also interesting for the words that are still compound words at the time: not only “base ball” but “team mates.” “Perfect game” was also not yet part of the vernacular. Via the Kentucky Digital Library.
My A-Rod Story: All That Negative Stuff
It's been a hot hot-stove league for Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is often called A-Rod, which is just as often denigrated to A-Fraud, or A-Roid, and whom The New York Post now wishes A-Gone. Good luck with that.
Here are just some of the recent stories about A-Rod, and just from the staid New York Times:
- Rodriguez Has Hip Surgery: Yankees Expect Six-Month Recovery: Jan. 16, 2013
- Concern About Rodriguez on New Front: Yankees urge A-Rod away from previous hip doctor, Marc Philippon, who has ties to Anthony Galea, who has already pled guilty to distributing HGH among athletes: Jan. 26
- Rodriguez Linked Anew to Prohibited Drugs: Jan. 29
- Rodriguez Denails Put Yankees' Patience to Test: Jan. 29
- Yankees' Options Concerning Rodriguez's Contract Are Limited: Jan. 30
- Baseball Officials Navigate Puzzle of Anti-Aging Clinics: Feb. 1
- Steinbrenner Concerned About Drug Allegations Against Rodriguez: Feb. 8
- Alex Rodriguez to Stay Away as Yankees Report: Feb. 1
With some implying his career is suddenly over at the age of 37, I began to think about the first and only time I met the man.
It was the summer of 2000, the Seattle Mariners second full year without Randy, our first year without Junior, our last year with Alex. But we were doing well. GM Pat Gillick had put together a good squad. We'd added John Olerud, Aaron Sele, Mike Cameron, Mark McLemore, Stan Javier. Plus we still had A-Rod, Edgar, Jay Buhner, Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia. We were good again.
Surprisingly, a few of these players were talking about me. At the time, I wrote the player profiles for an alternative M's fan magazine, The Grand Salami, sold outside Safeco Field, and I was beginning to hear distant grumbles. It began with Mark McLemore, who didn't like my implication that he couldn't hit lefties. (He was right: he batted .293 against them that year). To the Salami editor, Jon Wells, utility man John Mabry quoted my mostly negative profile of him almost verbatim. But the grumbles remained distant. As a monthly, the Salami only gets one press credential per homestand, and it usually went to Jon. In June, though, he offered me the chance to interview Edgar Martinez and I leapt at it.
At the ballpark that day, I felt like the new kid at school. What's the etiquette? When is it okay to approach players? Edgar was a gentleman, the beat writers were helpful, Stan Javier was classy. I'd decided to interview not only Edgar but other players about Edgar, for a sidebar, and in this regard was most interested in getting Alex Rodriguez's comments. Not only was he the star of the team, he often commented upon Edgar's professionalism. Unfortunately, for the hours I was there, he wasn't. He only showed up in the locker room, trailing a camera crew, as we were being shooed from it. Crap, I thought, missed my chance. Then I decided, What the hell. Worst thing he can say is no.
“Hi Alex,” I said. “Erik Lundegaard, Grand Salami. We're doing a cover story on Edgar Martinez next month and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of quick questions about him.”
He shot me a look.
“You own that book?”
“That magazine. You own it?”
“I don't own it, I write for it.”
“You the one who writes all that negative stuff?”
Uh oh, I thought, here it comes. Hey everybody, here's the guy who writes all that negative stuff! I imagined noogies from McLemore, a headlock from Jay Buhner, a Lou Piniella Indian burn.
“What negative stuff?”
“That stuff about me striking out all the time. All the good things I do and all you can write about is strikeouts?”
Inwardly I groaned. What had I written about him this past month? I couldn't remember.
“Well, normally we write nothing but positive about you. We've called you Kid Dynamite, Superman...”
“You understand, don't you?” he said. “Why should I talk to you if you write that negative stuff all the time?”
In other words, I got bupkis out of him. Later, in the pressbox, I took out the latest Salami and read Alex's profile. This is what I had written:
A-Rod's career weakness has always been plate discipline. He struck out 100+ times three of the last four seasons and never walked much. This year he's still piling up the K's (him and everybody else), but drawing so many walks he'll shatter his career high (59) by the end of June. It helps that he doesn't have The Greatest Player of the 1990s batting behind him—no pitcher this side of Paul Assenmacher wanted to walk anyone to get to Junior—but it seems that A-Rod, an astoundingly mature 24 year-old, understands better than ever the value of going deep into the count. His reward? As of this writing, he's leading the league in OBP—a blistering .489—and is a serious contender to be the first man since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to win the triple crown.
At the end of that season Alex went on the free-agent market and signed a record contract with the Texas Rangers: $252 million for 10 years. The first time he returned to Safeco Field, in late April 2001, the place was packed, and angry, in a way that Seattle baseball had never been angry. We knew we'd been robbed of something and Alex bore the brunt. I'd never heard so much abuse heaped upon one man before. Three years later, he wanted out of his contract—he couldn't stand the losing in Texas—and wound up with the New York Yankees, where, if he didn't perform, particularly in the post-season, the boos rained down on him like it was Safeco Field all over again. He went through a divorce, various scandals, many girlfriends. He was on the outs with former friend Derek Jeter, who was beloved.
I almost felt sorry for him—as much as you can feel sorry for a high-paid, superstar athlete. I used to call him the PR rep for Alex Rodriguez, Inc., because a phoniness eminated off of him and a need to please. He seemed to be aware that he was always being watched. You'd think he couldn't look at himself from the outside that way and still be as good as he was.
In 2009, Alex admitted to steroid use. But that was a comeback year for him. He had a great postseason and helped the Yankees to their 27th world championship. But he wasn't beloved. He was never beloved.
I assume he has a different perspective on negative stuff now.
Alex Rodriguez playing shortstop for the Seattle Mariners in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Jon Wells and The Grand Salami.
Quote of the Day
“[The New York press] never let me forget it. They called me 'Sappy' and 'Playboy,' and when I said I loved baseball they saw fit to ridicule that, too, and when I had to chasten some of their heroes, people like Del Webb and Leo Durocher, they never failed to take their side. But I don't embarrass easily. If you are sober and diligent and forthright, there is no reason to be embarassed.”
--Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, the 44th and 49th governor of Kentucky, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky (1939-1945), and the second Commissioner of Major League Baseball, as quoted in “1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball,” by Red Barber. Some say MLB would not have integrated in 1947 if Chandler had not been commissioner.
Commissioner 'Happy' Chandler, living up to his nickname, standing between Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe.
Stan 'The Man' Musial: 1920-2013
How underrated was Stan Musial? When Ken Burns broadcast his 18-hour documentary on the history of baseball on PBS in 1994, he didn't get to Stan Musial, who debuted in September 1941, until after he'd dealt with the following subjects: World War II, Jackie Robinson, the failure yet again of the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series in 1946, integration, the death of the Negro Leagues, the rise of Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Bobby Thomson's shot heard 'round the world, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, the movement of teams out west, the broken heart of Brooklyn, Maz's shot heard 'round the world (from a NY perspective), Roger Maris and 61*, and the rise, such as it was, of the New York Mets. Then it was 1963. Then he got to Musial.
I remember watching the doc back in Sept. 1994. When the words “The Man” flashed on the screen as we were in the early 1960s, I thought: “Wait a minute, we're just getting to him now? WTF?” Burns in his doc is like Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall”: He has trouble leaving New York. And Musial, with seven batting titles in the '40s and '50s, with more extra-base hits than anyone in baseball history upon retirement, is great, sure, but he plays in St. Louis. What's the story there? There's no story there. The story of baseball was always elsewhere in the mind of Ken Burns.
Then he gives him four short minutes. Short shrfit. At the least, we get George Will's great quote:
Baseball is rich in statistics but it's hard to find one more beautiful than Stan Musial's hitting record. Stan Musial got 3,630 hits: 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. He didn't care where he was. He just hit.
Where does Musial rank in various stats? Here:
- Hits: 4th with 3,630
- Extra-base hits: 3rd with 1,377
- Runs: 9th with 1,949
- Doubles: 3rd with 725
- Triples: 19th with 177
- Triples, post WWII: 1st
- Runs Created, 3rd
- WAR: 9th
- Offensive WAR: 7th
I like his K-BB ratio. In his career, he struck out 696 times against 1599 walks. He's 6th in games played and 578th in strikeouts. Ted Williams had fewer plate appearances but struck out more. Ted Williams.
Musial, easy-going, had a smile that reminded me of Gene Kelly.
He's the reason why Ken Griffey, Jr. is only the second-best player to come out of Donora, Pennsylvania. He will be missed.
Stan Musial at the plate.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard