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Will the Ghost of Hank Greenberg Save the Tigers?

Saddened by the Detroit Tigers 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals last night, and fearful that the Cards might snatch the national title tonight, documentary filmmaker — and lifelong Tigers fan — Aviva Kempner didn’t much feel like talking about the present. Instead, her thoughts were focused on the year of the two teams’ first postseason showdown — 1934 — and on Tiger great and Jewish baseball legend Hank Greenberg, the subject of a documentary released by Kempner in 1998.

“Thirty-four was the year Greenberg didn’t play on Yom Kippur,” Kempner told the Forward. “Everybody talks about Sandy Koufax, but you can switch a pitcher. When you’re in a pennant race and you lose your best hitter, that’s pretty incredible.”

The obstacles facing Greenberg that year didn’t just come from the Jewish calendar, Kempner said. On the one hand, there was Henry Ford handing out the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” at his Detroit dealerships and on the other Greenberg faced on-field hecklers like the Cardinals’ Dean Brothers, Dizzy and Paul.

“Hey Moe!” they’d call to him during his World Series at bats.

Nonetheless, with 7 runs batted in and a series batting average of .321, the Detroit slugger acquitted himself nicely. The Tigers as a whole fared less well. They lost to the Cardinals in seven.

The next year, Greenberg was named the Most Valuable Player in the American League and led the Tigers to a World Series victory against the Chicago Cubs. Once again, Greenberg was heckled, this time with the Cubs bench yelling “throw him a pork chop.” Home plate umpire George Moriarty stopped the game until order was restored. The ump was subsequently fined as a result, but became a hero to local Jews, including the father of actress Gilda Radner, who held a fundraiser to cover the fine.

Reflecting on the taunts endured by Greenberg doesn’t upset Kempner. “You know that old cigarette commercial ‘You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,’” she said. “Back then, ‘bench-jockeying’ was the rule of the day. You would never have that today.”

And yet, some things never change. Charges that Detroit pitcher Kenny Rogers had a foreign substance on his hand during Game 2 of the series reminded Kempner of those who accused Greenberg, who experimented with a lacrosse net-like mitt, of keeping chewing gum in his glove to help the ball stick.

Then again, with the difficulties the Tigers have been having in the field, maybe a little gum wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

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