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Video > Couch Trip

Baseball jones

Two Detroit Tiger films that dovetail nicely together

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Published 4/7/2010

For the Love of the Game
Universal Studios

It's mighty easy to slag Kevin Costner. No star can hit a career high with Dances With Wolves then hit box-office bunkers with rank films such as 1995's Waterworld and 1997's The Postman, without getting used to jokes and guffaws.

Helmed by Royal Oak native Sam Raimi, 1999's For Love of the Game may have been Costner's chance for career redemption, considering much of his early fame rose from two great baseball films (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams). The third time wasn't a charmer for Costner. This flick generated little box office and did nothing to help save the actor's foundering reputation.

In For the Love of the Game, Costner plays Billy Chapel, a pitcher in the twilight of his 19-year career with the Detroit Tigers. On the eve of a division championship game (against the Yankees!), he discovers that the team owner has sold the organization with plans to trade him. What could be his last day on the mound turns into a potential no-hitter, as he reflects on his imperfect life during what could be the perfect game.

The setup is enough for baseball fans to drool. And in the hands of Sam Raimi, it works; you peek into the head of a pitcher, for personal story, for career. Raimi brings max tension too — something he has certainly mastered — out of the actual play footage, employing various camera techniques and effects that nearly put you in the game. But it's Billy's personal life that's flat: Flashbacks show how he met the love of his life, and how he blew it with her. It doesn't humanize him, nor endear him to us, so much as it disrupts the film's best parts — including the big Yankee Stadium finale.

Costner's really good in this: In one particular scene, he conveys a multitude of conflicting emotions without a lick of dialogue for backup.

Tigers' fans might get rankled to find the Detroit references here are limited to team uniforms and Raimi. Is For the Love of the Game as good as Costner's other baseballers? No. Will baseball fans dig it? Oh, yeah.


The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
20th Century Fox

It's one thing to become a sports legend. It's another to do it in the face of racist fans, overcompetitive opponents and even your own teammates.

But this is what first baseman Hank Greenberg did in nine seasons with the Detroit Tigers. Known as Hammerin' Hank, Greenberg played for the Tigers in the '30s, when anti-Semitism was in full bloom here — thanks in part to Henry Ford's incendiary publication of The International Jew as well as Royal Oak's Father Charles Coughlin, who used his radio program to issue anti-Semitic commentary and later to rationalize some of the policies of the Nazi party. Greenberg wasn't the first Jewish ballplayer, but he was the first to become a star. That he didn't change his name and never played down his heritage are among many reasons he became an icon to Jews everywhere.

It's safe to say documentarian Aviva Kempner can be counted as a Greenberg fan — if not his biggest. She spent 13 years pulling together interviews and archival footage for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, and the results are an informative and loving portrait of the late-great Tiger. Her doc covers his early years as a Bronx kid raised by Romanian immigrant parents, to his 1930 signing with the Tigers, through two World Series, a stint in the U.S. Air Force, and very nearly snapping Babe Ruth's homerun record.

With Gary Cooper good looks, the 6-foot-4-inch-tall Greenberg excelled despite the negative stereotypes and name-calling of teams and fans. Most interestingly, Greenberg called the tauntings a "spur to make me do better. Because if you struck out you weren't just a bum, but a Jewish bum." Kempner's doc has plenty of enlightening moments like this. Combined with a parade of Jewish and non-Jewish celeb interviews — ranging from Carl and Sander Levin to Alan Dershowitz and Walter Matthau — Life and Times excels at showing how Greenberg's on-field achievements had major social relevance.

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