“Jews and Baseball, An American Love Story”
“Jews and Baseball, An American Love Story” is a new documentary film written by long-time and Pulitzer prize-winningÂ New York Times sports writer, Ira Berkow, and directed by Peter Miller. Â It was featured Sunday night to a packed house at the American Film Institute theater in Silver Spring, MD. It is not just any movie house, but one of the grandest and largest in the country and a wonderful venue for any film. Â The large crowd was 100 percent baseball and probably 95 percent Jewish.
The film was introduced by Aviva Kempner whose Peabody Award-winning film sketch of Hank Greenberg was–I believe–the previous best film about Jews and baseball. Â Ms. Kempner introduced Berkow to the audience and acknowledged him as the leading expert on Hank Greenberg to whom she turned when beginning her project more than a decade ago. Â Greenberg is a major character in this film as well, but it is about more than just the individual players from the Jewish faith. Â It is–as Ira Berkow said in the question and answer period after the film, “the story of a social group trying to integrate itself into American life.” Â In that sense, the film is “a metaphor” for an ethnic and racial experience common to many Americans.
Though there were prominent Jewish ball players from the very beginning of the sport, the overall semitic population within the country was less than .5 percent of the total American population when major league baseball got its start. Â It was only when the large migration of Russian Jews arrived on American shores between 1880 and 1920 that their socialization into American culture became an issue and baseball could work its magic. Like the Irish before them, the game played a huge role in their successful transition as Americans.
The game was important in breaking down the racial stereotypes of Jews as non-athletes. That myth was played on by early barnstorming groups like the House of David. The film featured clips of the group with their shtetl appearance–long hair and beards that were worn for effect. Â But the team was also a vehicle for some early Jewish ballplayers to make the grade.
As Berkow states in the movie–through the voice of Dustin Hoffman–Hank Greenberg was the breakthrough event. Â The great slugger brought the Jewish experience to Americans through baseball and helped break down the myths that were so common in an American public with little real knowledge of the Jewish faith or the life of those who embrace it. Greenberg was no less a trailblazer than Jackie Robinson in many ways, enduring the same hateful epithets from players and fans in his early years in the sport. Â But his honoring of his religious heritage during the pennant race in 1934 when he sat out during Yom Kippur–the holiest day of the year for Jews–made a statement that was deeply felt by every Jew in America during a time when baseball was king and players who could hit fifty home runs were gods.
Detroit may have been home to Hank Greenberg, but Brooklyn was, and continues to be, home to a huge preponderance of aspiring and working class Jews. The Dodgers were their team, though the Giants and Yankees clearly had their own ethnic fans. The Dodgers’ Jewish fan base made a wonderful home for Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier and the film highlights the many Jewish fans who embraced him knowing his experience was much like their own. For anyone who remembers old Ebbets Field, there are wonderful shots of the crowds streaming into the main gate.
Sandy Koufax brought Jewish players to Hall of Fame prominence again after Greenberg. He too made a religious statement during the 1965 World Series when he would not start the first game of the Series for Yom Kippur. There is great footage of Koufax and the highlights of his career in the movie, as well as a long interview with the reclusive Koufax that Berkow was proud to feature. Â The two Hall of Famers, Koufax and Greenberg, tell much of the tale, but the movie also showcases other famous Jewish ballplayers like American League MVP Al Rosen, and some whose faith was not as well known, like Elliot Maddox.
Today’s game boasts fifteen Jewish players including Kevin Youkilis who may yet join Koufax and Greenberg. Shaun Green, Ian Kinsler, and Jason Marquis are mentioned briefly, but there is more about non-players like Marvin Miller and Bud Selig who have had more impact on the game than any single player. Â Their interviews add depth to the movie.
The film may seem one-dimensional, just about Jews who play professional baseball. Â And it devotes almost the totality of its hour and one-half to that subject. But it does us a favor by anchoring the great American game in the history of the country from which it sprang, and in the culture for which it was once king. The movie ends with a wonderful acknowledgement that while baseball is often about so much more than just the game, it is at its best when it is about nothing more than “just a beautiful game.”
So whether you are Jewish or not–and I am not–the movie is a moving tribute to America’s pastime. The game is the better for the role it has played over the course of the last 150 years when immigrants from every corner of the globe have passed through every port in the land and used baseball as a tool of their Americanization.Â The film will be shown on PBS this March and at other venues that highlight documentary film. See it. You will be glad you did.