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
By Bruce F. Lowitt
ST. PETERSBURG, Florida — Think Jewish baseball players.
OK, now that you’ve come up with Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, think about, say, a dozen Jewish major leaguers playing right now.
There’s Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Gabe Kapler of the Rays, and … um … Ryan Braun of the Brewers and … and … is John Grabow of the Cubs Jewish? (Yes.)
And Shawn Green of the Mets? Sorry. He hasn’t played since 2007.) Oh, and David Eckstein of the Padres. (Sounds like he might be Jewish, but he’s not.)
And how’s Braun doing this year? (Very well, thank you, as is Youkilis.) And why is it necessary to scour the box scores in the newspaper or online sites to find out how Grabow is doing this year?
Former St. Petersburg Times reporter Scott Barancik created the Jewish Baseball News, online at www.jewishbaseballnews.com in May for just that purpose.
The Rays’ Gabe Kapler is one of the players followed on the new website: http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com It isn’t his first online venture.
He is also the founder, in 2008, of www.baylawsuits.com, a news service that researches court cases – about 2,000 so far — for his clients. That venture was an outgrowth of the former American Banker writer and then eight-year Times business reporter being caught up in the first wave of layoffs as the economy slumped.
Looking back on it, he acknowledges, “I think daily journalism was not for me. I always had trouble making deadlines. I was much more into wordsmithing than the job and time allowed.”
He came up with the idea for http://www.jewishbaseballnews.com while researching his family history.
“At some point, probably in my 20s (he turned 46 on May 21), well after I’d become interested in baseball in general, Barancik said, “I started looking into genealogy, trying to find ancestors, immigrants who’d changed their names when they got here or were in some other way concealed by the records of history.”
After a while, he said, “I thought, ‘I’m spending all this time on dead people. … There are all these living (relatives) I don’t know about. Maybe I should concentrate on looking at the family tree going forward.”
He realized he had the same attitude about Jewish ballplayers, about having a sense of pride in the performance of Jewish athletes.
But do an Internet search for Jewish major leaguers and you’ll find that most of the sites take a historical approach, looking back at Koufax, Greenberg, Cal Abrams, Rod Carew, Al Rosen, Moe Berg, Ron Blomberg, and dozens of names rarely mentioned outside of a line or two in the Baseball Encyclopedia’s list of all-time players.
If there are discussions, debates, it often comes down to just what makes a player Jewish. Did Carew convert or did he not? If a player has a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother, is he Jewish? Does it matter how observant he is?
“I found that a turnoff,” Barancik said, “and, kind of like with my family history, it made me look to the present. Who’s Jewish today? … I started looking into it and I was blown away that there were more than a dozen last year.
“I started asking my Jewish friends, ‘How many Jews do you think are playing (in the major leagues) today? Invariably they said, ‘One?’ ‘Two?’ Usually Youkilis, maybe Braun.”
He found it interesting that when people say Jewish ballplayer, Koufax and Greenberg – and rarely anyone else – come to mind.
“There’s all of this stuff going on now and why aren’t we celebrating that?” Barancik said. “And I thought, ‘How can I keep track of these guys, keep track of how they’re doing? How can I, y’know, live out the Jewish male fantasy of seeing how these Members of the Tribe are performing on a daily basis.’ ”
Unlike other websites, jewishbaseballnews.com provides daily and season-total up-to-date statistics of the 12 current “Members of the Tribe” major-league players, plus blogs, news updates, and features, Barancik said.
There are other websites devoted to Jewish athletes in general and baseball players in particular, notably jewishsportsreview.com, run by Shel Wallman and Ephraim Moxson.
It’s a one-man operation at the moment — with a lot of assistance from Wallman and Moxson.
“At this point I’m relying on them,” Barancik said. “They don’t call me every time they find someone and say, ‘Hey, there’s a new Jew.’ When they find somebody new they break it in their own publications. But they’ve been very generous in sharing their information with me, the historical stuff they’ve gathered.
“They’re the go-to people for knowing who is Jewish. They call players or their families and try to both confirm that they’re Jewish and comfortable with being identifi ed as Jewish in a publication,” Barancik said.
He is developing a blog for features and opinion pieces. He says he wants to add more bloggers and to establish a give-and-take with his readers and hopes that, over time, he can introduce other writers “who have a voice and are interested in waxing eloquent on the subject of Jewish baseball players.”
He has also learned that feeling pride in the success of one member of a group, whether it’s religious (Greenberg), racial (Joe Louis) or anything else, is commonplace.
“I’ve met folks from the Dominican Republic who can name every one of the roughly 40 Dominican players in the majors,” Barancik said, “and fans who can tell you every Cuban-born player. There’s that sense of pride, and I think that we as Jews feel the same way.”
He wonders if, in fact, there’s anyone else out there with the same passion, the sense of group pride. He thinks there is, although he doesn’t have an answer yet because the site is barely a month old.
But that’s why I created it,” Barancik said, “to indulge my own interest with the hope that others might be interested as well.”
Which begs the question: Why should that many people care about Youkilis as a Jew rather than what he’s doing to help carry the Red Sox? Why should people who aren’t Rays fans care about Gabe Kapler?
“I think it’s fair to say that if you’re not a baseball fan, if you’re not a Rays fan, you’re not going to care about Gabe Kapler,” Barancik said. “Granted, if there’s, say, an incredibly talented Jewish soccer player in the English Premier League, I wouldn’t care about him that much because I don’t really care about soccer.”
Barancik, a Chicago native and Cubs fan, said he was a Youkilis fan before discovering after the 2008 season that the Red Sox first baseman was Jewish.
“I never would have guessed it. Usually you tend to ‘hate’ the best guys on the other team, but I had such an admiration for Youkilis,” Barancik said. “He’s butt-ugly, he has the weirdest (batting) stance, he’ll foul off 10 pitches before he gets the one he likes. And he always seems to have fun. It was like, ‘I wish we had that guy.’ ”
This article previously appeared in the Jewish Press of Pinellas County.
By Donald H. Harrison
LEMON GROVE, California – If you travel to Hamburg or Frankfurt in Germany, you’ll find that in neither place is a “hamburger” or a “frankfurter” a staple of local diets. Wouldn’t you think that in Lemon Grove, one could get a glass of fresh-made lemonade? Lido’s, a popular family-owned restaurant serving Italian food for nearly a half century, indeed has lemonade on the menu. However, the waitress advises, it’s not fresh-squeezed; it’s from a dispenser.
Alas, things are not always what they seem. This is a town that right in the heart of its downtown boasts a 10 foot-by-6 foot lemon sculpture, recognized on the Roadside America website as the largest lemon in the world. However, the only fresh lemons you’ll find in the City of Lemon Grove are those that grow on a few trees recently planted for effect behind the lemon sculpture. The acres upon acres of lemon and orange groves of the past are no more; they gave way to housing developments and stores in this working class San Diego suburb on the San Diego Trolley’s ‘orange’ line.
The town has all but lost its namesake fruit, and except for the big lemon sculpture, does little to promote itself as a lemon capital. There are no ‘lemon fairs’ for townspeople to compete in; no international competitions for the best lemon meringue pies, lemon cookies, or lemon tarts. There are no trade fairs demonstrating the lemon’s qualities as a furniture polish, and not even any exhibitions of defective automobiles.
Yet, the town does keep nostalgia alive. Its station house along the San Diego Trolley line is a copy of one that served the town a century earlier. Four murals adorn the wall of the Grove Pastry Shop, located where the city’s first business, Sonka Brothers General Merchandise, once stood.
Four of five idealized history murals by local artists Kathleen Strzelecki and Janne LaValle were completed prior to New Year’s Day 2010. The first shows a Kumeyaay family outside a thatched hut or ewaa. Children are playing, women are weaving, a man is readying a spear for fishing.
In the second mural, crew members of explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo ride horses through the land he named ‘San Miguel’ in 1542, but which subsequently became known as ‘San Diego.’ In the background is a scene that could not have occurred for another 267 years—a Franciscan padre teaching a group of Kumeyaay Indians gathered around a tree. It was not until 1769 that Spaniards led by Father Junipero Serra began to colonize this area.
The third mural depicts San Diego County during its Mexican period. There is a procession of two brides on horseback—accompanied by musicians.
The fourth mural focuses on the early history of Lemon Grove, which was first settled in 1869 by sheep rancher Robert Allison. The mural shows the Lemon Grove Store operated by the Sonka Brothers, as well as a church, the school where a teacher leads children in a recess game, and the train station. The fifth mural, when completed, is supposed to show modern Lemon Grove.
In a 1958 edition of the Journal of San Diego History, Anthony F. Sonka, a second generation owner of Sonka Brothers, recalled that “in the early days, lemons were the chief industry, and hundreds of carloads were shipped from the local packing house, which was operated by the California Citrus Union; later the Lemon Grove Association was organized. … Lemon Grove was a community of five and ten acre lemon and orange ranches, chiefly owned by semi-retired people.”
He also wrote that baseball was the chief diversion for the lemon pickers in town. “In 1915 Lemon Grove won what they called at that time the Valley Championship. Among the teams were North Park, Lakeside, El Cajon and Chula Vista. We had a diamond which the players had built themselves, and which they kept up.”
Sports today still is important to Lemon Grove. The Lemon Grove Little League rates its own banner near the big lemon, and one of the best known businesses is Berry’s Athletic Supply, which keeps a huge inventory so that it can fill orders immediately.
Although Lemon Grove still has a small-town feel, with the Chamber of Commerce trying to persuade passers-by that they are experiencing the ‘best climate on earth” and most businesses along Broadway and Lemon Grove Avenue being one-story affairs, national chains are coming to the suburb. Close to the giant lemon is a Starbucks coffee outlet, and about a mile down Broadway is a huge Home Depot.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. This article appeared previously on examiner.com
By Joey Seymour
SAN DIEGO — What was just a bunch of “junk in the garage” according to Bob Breitbard’s wife, Lillie, turned into the vast collection of San Diego sports memorabilia, which is housed today in the sixty thousand square foot Hall of Champions Museum in Balboa Park. Bob Breitbard loved collecting sports memorabilia, especially items from great champions who came from San Diego.
In 1946, while president of the California Linen Supply, Bob decided to follow his passion of sports by starting the Breitbard Athletic Foundation, which honors local high school athletes. Breitbard himself was a star football player at Hoover High School and later became their coach. The combination of Breitbard’s collection, the Athletic Foundation, and later the Breitbard Hall of Fame (honoring professional athletes from San Diego), created the San Diego Hall of Champions, the largest sports museum honoring a single city in the country. Whereas the museum is one of the many incredible museums in Balboa Park, Breitbard who passed away of natural causes on Monday, May 17, was an original.
Robert Breitbard was born on April 28, 1919 in San Diego and grew up a fan and participant of sports. He excelled in football while at Hoover High and was great friend with baseball legend, Ted Williams, who called Bob “knucklehead.” They graduated together in 1937. Their friendship would remain strong throughout their lives. Many of Ted’s items, trophies and game used equipment are on display at the Hall of Champions, despite a law suit in 2006 by members of Ted Williams’ family who attempted to have Ted’s 1949 MVP trophy returned to them. After graduating from Hoover High, Breitbard went on to play football at San Diego State University. In 1945, he became SDSU’s fifth football coach. He would only coach the team for one year.
The desire to focus his life on bringing sports to San Diego escalated in 1966 when he built the San Diego Sports Arena and owned the buildings first professional team, The San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. A year later, he purchased the 12th team to join the NBA for 1.75 million dollars. They would be given the moniker the Rockets due to San Diego’s budding space age industry and the city’s theme at the time, “a city in motion.” Unfortunately, and with much contention, the Gulls folded and the Rockets were sold to an investment firm in Houston, Texas for 5.6 million dollars. The Gulls would return in other forms playing for different minor leagues and under different ownership, but the loss of the Rockets was upsetting to many San Diegans, despite low attendance numbers and poor performance on the court. Breitbard always contended that he did not want to sell the team, but due to major tax hikes on the Arena, Breitbard could no longer operate either team.
After the Rockets left in 1971, Breitbard continued to focus his attention on the museum (which officially opened in 1961), the Athletic Foundation, and the Hall of Fame. He was also a member of Tifereth Israel Synagogue giving much to San Diego’s Jewish Community. He also donated a great deal to the Sharp Hospital and Salk Institute while also sitting on the boards of the San Diego International Sports Council and San Diego Holiday Bowl. His efforts to persuade the Chargers to move from Los Angeles helped earn San Diego its NFL team in 1961 and his negotiations with Major League Baseball helped persuade the league to add the expansion Padres team in 1969.
Al Kidd, President of the San Diego Hall of Champions posted a video tribute on the museum’s website saying, “Bob had a big heart and he put a lot of his resources both personally with time and finances into a lot of causes here in San Diego, but in the end, the number one cause was the Hall of Champions.”
Breitbard lost his beloved wife Lillie on November 24, 1997. The two of them, however, will always have seats at the Sports Arena. Loge section 24, Row 1, Seats 11 – 14 are always saved for Bob Breitbard and will continue to be.
The San Diego Hall of Fame honors great athletes from or who represented San Diego like Dan Fouts, Ted Williams, Maureen Connolly, Greg Louganis, Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, Archie Moore, and Tony Hawk. Today San Diegans mourn the city’s MVP, Bob Breitbard for all that he did and for the conviction and passion in which he did it.
Joey Seymour is a Sports Historian and Author of “San Diego’s Finest Athletes: Five Exceptional Lives,” now Available through Sunbelt Publications at www.sunbeltbooks.com.
TAMPA, Florida (Press Release)–For the second consecutive year, the New York Yankees have announced they will offer strictly kosher food offerings and Shabbat accommodations at their November 2010 Fantasy Camp. Glatt kosher food will be provided by Weberman Foods with OK supervision, and a Wednesday “Dream Game” will be played so Shomer Shabbat Jews can participate.
Campers who keep kosher will be able to fully participate in all regular camp activities and have three strictly kosher meals served daily. The camp will offer traditional Shabbat services Friday night and Saturday, with Friday practice ending well before Shabbat and kosher campers able to participate in final games on Sunday.
For six days and seven nights, Yankees Fantasy Campers live the life of a big league player, dressing in full Yankees uniform and using the same Spring Training clubhouse and fields as the New York Yankees. All campers get their very own locker and are served by a staff of clubhouse attendants and professional trainers to create the authentic Yankees experience.
Former Yankees Chris Chambliss, Fritz Peterson, Tommy John, Mickey Rivers, and Ron Blomberg, among others, are scheduled to attend.
Founded in 1997 and located in Tampa, Fla., the New York Yankees Fantasy Camp has hosted over 1,500 campers and 50 former New York Yankees players. For more information on the New York Yankees Fantasy Camp, and the addition of strictly kosher and Shabbat accommodations, please call (800) 368-2267.
Preceding provided by the New York Yankees
4S RANCH, California — Rabbi Baruch Lederman of Congregation Kehillas Torah in San Diego spotted this sign on the fence of an athletic field in this San Diego County community.
NEWTON, Massachusetts (Press Release)– Boston Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis has been voted the Jewish Player of the Decade in online balloting conducted by Jewish Major Leaguers, the organization which produces an annual set of trading cards to honor the Jewish contribution to America’s National Pastime. Youkilis received 54% of the nearly 350 votes cast, with Shawn Green finishing second at 20% and Ryan Braun third at 11%. Other candidates included Brad Ausmus, Jason Marquis, Scott Schoeneweis, John Grabow, Gabe Kapler, Scott Feldman, Ian Kinsler, Craig Breslow, Adam Stern and Mike Lieberthal.
Ausmus, Marquis and Schoeneweis played the full decade of the ‘00s, and Green enjoyed two monster seasons with the Dodgers at the start of the decade. “Clearly,” said Martin Abramowitz, who heads JML, “Youkilis made a more lasting impression because of his superb play in the second half of the decade, which included a .382 on-base percentage, tops among everyone in the group.”
Youkilis also had a consecutive errorless streak at first base which broke an 86-year old record, won a Gold Glove, and had two top-ten finishes in MVP voting. Several voters commented on his versatility and intensity, which has led the Red Sox to four post-season appearances in his 7-year career. He batted .500 in the 2007 American League Championship Series, with a .929 slugging percentage. The 2010 edition of Jewish Major Leaguer baseball cards will include a card recognizing Youkilis’s selection.
“One of the purposes of the balloting”, Abramowitz noted, ”was to highlight the fact that this has been an extraordinary decade for Jews in baseball, perhaps the greatest ever.” Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., is a Boston-based not-for-profit organization “Documenting American Jews in America’s Game.” It has produced five highly regarded limited-edition sets of Jewish Major Leaguers baseball cards and two nationally-publicized events at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
The 2008 Hank Greenberg Edition and the 2009 “Record-Setters” edition are still available; the 2010 “Deck of the Decade” is planned for publication shortly after Opening Day of next season. Jewish Major Leaguers baseball cards are licensed by Major League Baseball, and the Major League Baseball Players Association. The 2010 edition will be produced in cooperation with The Topps Company, and is made possible in part by grants from Major League Baseball, the Chicago White Sox, the Florida Marlins, the New York Mets, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Washington Nationals. Youkilis’ 2010 card from the Jewish Major Leaguers forthcoming set, as well as the special Player of the Decade card, are attached. For further information, visit www.Jewishmajorleaguers.org.