Documentary follows Greenberg, Koufax, other Jewish baseball icons
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, directed by Peter Miller, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, produced by Clear Lake Historical Productions.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO – A new documentary, sure to hit the circuit of Jewish film festivals is Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story. Although actor Dustin Hoffman is the off-camera narrator, the real star power comes from Jewish major leaguers, alive and dead, whose skillfully edited interviews provide first-person perspective on a story that began in the late 1800s and continues to this day.
The longest segments of the 91-minute documentary cover the careers of Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but plenty of other Jewish players appear in this work of love including Buddy Myer, Harry Danning, Norm Sherry, Ron Blomberg, Shawn Green, and Kevin Youkilis.
The essential thesis behind the documentary is that Jews love America, nothing is more American than baseball, and that success in baseball represents success in America.
There are some great tidbits along the way, and one not so bad pun. Did you know that the Bible contains the first account of baseball? Yup, it’s right there in Genesis, which starts “In the Big Inning.”
The first known Jewish baseball player was Lipman Pike, who played for various teams in the 30 years following the U.S. Civil War. The first Jew to appear on a baseball card was pitcher Barney Pelty of the St. Louis Browns, who pitched during the first two decades of the 1900s. The New York Giants recruited Jewish players in the 1920s, to win Jewish fans. Moses Solomon, a big home run hitter, was dubbed “the rabbi of swat,” which was a rhetorical challenge to Babe Ruth of the cross-town Yankees, who was known as the “sultan of swat.” Another giant Giant was Andy Cohen, who was so popular at the Polo Grounds they sold “Ice Cream Cohens.”
Here’s some impressive trivia: The second-most sung song in the world behind “Happy Birthday” is “Take Me Out To the Ballgame,” which was composed by the Jewish musician Albert Von Tilzer.
These kind of factoids were warm ups for the story about Hank Greenberg, which his son, Steve, assisted in telling. Described as the first Jewish baseball superstar, Greenberg was a 6’4 first baseman who spent most of his major league career with the Detroit Tigers. In 1934, he set a precedent for Sandy Koufax, when he decided not to play on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, ten days earlier, was another matter. A rabbi found some biblical precedent to permit him to play, and Greenberg hit two homeruns that day to beat the Boston Red Sox.
Abstaining on Yom Kippur prompted some doggerel about Greenberg:
We shall miss him in the infield
We’ll miss him at bat.
But he’s true to his religion
And we honor him for that.
Not everyone honored Greenberg or other Jewish players, however. Catcalls like “Heeb!” “Kike!” “Throw him a pork chop!” plagued Greenberg, who occasionally did not turn the other cheek. In 1938, the year historians say was the beginning of the Holocaust with the Kristallnacht in Germany, Greenberg was chasing Babe Ruth’s single season record of 60 home runs. The documentary debunks the rumor that opposing teams were so anti-Semitic they refused to pitch to him. Pitch to them pitchers did, including Bob Feller, who was interviewed on camera about one of the last games of the season in which he faced—and tamed—Greenberg.
With anti-Semitism rampant in Nazi Germany and with some Bundists hoping to import similar hatred to the United States, Greenberg considered every good game he played – every home run – a way to show the world how wrong Nazi racial myths about Jews being inferior really were.
At the height of his career, Greenberg went into the Army to fight in World War II. “I’m in the Army now, and now I’m playing on Uncle Sam’s team,” he said in one news clip.
Greenberg played his last season when Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major leaguer, played his first. The documentary described a collision at first base when Robinson was running for a single. “Fans,” who were yelling cat calls at Robinson from the stands, wondered whether there would be a fight between the two men. Instead, Greenberg helped Robinson up, and told him not to worry about the invective some people screamed. They used to yell similar things at him, Greenberg told Robinson.
Greenberg mentored Al Rosen, and later disappointed him when he decided to trade Rosen from the Cleveland Indians, which Greenberg served as a general manager in his career off-the-field. Rather than be traded, Rosen decided to quit baseball, a sad chapter.
The story of Sandy Koufax’s career was the next large segment of the documentary. After his retirement, Koufax shrank from the limelight, so this interview is one of the longest—and most comprehensive—about the superstar Dodger pitcher, who threw a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs one season, and decided not to pitch on Yom Kippur in the 1965 World Series against the Minnesota Twins.
Don Drysdale pitched that World Series game instead, and got drubbed in the first two innings, giving up seven home runs. When manager Walter Alston came to the mound to take Drysdale out, the pitcher quipped that he’d “bet you wish I was Jewish too.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, baseball had a $100,000 salary cap—but Drysdale and Koufax decided to hold out together for a better salary, shutting out baseball owners who tried to resist their twin juggernaut. Eventually, their actions helped to empower the baseball players organization – led by Marvin Miller, another Jew.
There were quite a few Jewish owners in baseball, among them Charles Bronfman of Montreal, and Bud Selig of Baltimore, who eventually would go on to become Commissioner of Baseball.
Other Jewish baseballers included in the documentary were Art Shamsky of the 1969 Miracle Mets, Kenny Holtzman of the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics, and Ron Blomberg, a first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees, who later in his career would become Major League Baseball’s first designated hitter.
One player who many folks believed had converted to Judaism was Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins and California Angels. In fact, he had not, although Carew’s wife was Jewish and his two children were raised Jewish. Another African American who did convert to Judaism was Elliott Maddox, an infielder and outfielder who played on six major league teams, and quipped about his conversion: “I always considered myself a good two-strike hitter.”
In the 1990s, Shawn Green of the Los Angeles Dodgers was considered the standout Jewish baseball player, and in the 2000s, Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox has been a dominant player.
Not all the stories in the documentary were happy ones. Adam Greenberg was called up from the minors, and as a Chicago Cub pinch hitter, he was beaned on the very first pitch. The concussion he suffered knocked him out of baseball, although he has not given up on the idea of making a comeback.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World