That’s just one of the interesting nuggets in “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” a fascinating documentary that is a must-see for Jewish baseball fans. Directed by Peter Miller, written by Ira Berkow and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film boasts a rare interview with Sandy Koufax. Koufax speaks about how he was primarily a basketball player and only wound up playing baseball because he heard about a cool trip to New Orleans for the baseball team. He would later sign with the Dodgers for more than $40,000 and famously not pitch on Yom Kippur. Koufax would win the National League Most valuable Player Award in 1963 as well as the Cy Young Award in 1963, 1965 and 1966.
Rabbi Michael Paley, a baseball fan, offers up the notion that Greenberg was the most important American Jew because he was a big strong guy and an idol. Greenberg, who also served in the Army, said the anti-Semitic comments yelled at him from the stands would make him more motivated.
“I found that it was a spur to make me do better,” Greenberg says in footage of an old interview. “As soon as you struck out, you were not only a bum but a Jewish bum.”
His son, Steve, adds on camera that his father felt like every home run was a home run against Hitler. Greenberg won the American League Most Valuable Player Honors in 1935 with 36 homers and 170 RBI and again in 1940 when he had 41 home runs and 150. In one season, he played on Rosh Hashanna but not on Yom Kippur. The film cites a column in the Detroit Free Press, where Edgar Guest wrote of Greenberg’s absence:
“We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat but he’s true to his religion and we honor him for that.”
But in another newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, things didn’t bode as well for the Jews. Despite not being convicted, it was widely thought that the notorious Arnold Rothstein had a hand in the Black Sox World Series Scandal in 1919, where players took money to throw games. The film notes how Henry Ford wrote on May 22 1920:
“If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball they have it in three words—too much Jew.”
Some Jewish players changed their names so as not to be suspected of being Jewish. Many were named Cohen. Also is the fact that the music for “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” was written by Albert Von Tilzer, a Jew. We’re treated to old footage of a well-rehearsed female barber shop trio singing it.
The film shows how American Jews embraced baseball as a way to assimilate and show they were true Americans. Today, many take pride in the play of Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who speaks in the film about how he knows he is representing his religion and culture.
A portion of the film is devoted to love for Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mets owner Fred Wilpon is there talking about how much he loved the Dodgers.
“If my dear mother were alive, she’d tell you that if the Dodgers lost, she didn’t really have to cook much dinner for me because I wouldn’t even eat,” Wilpon says in the film. The documentary is timeless and something families should go see together.
The best aspect of the film is that it shows the similarity in teaching and passing down tradition and values through generations, something that shows how baseball and religion our similar.
“When they say ‘daddy come have a catch,’ I never say no,” King says. “Because I know that when I’m gone, they’re going to remember that…have a catch.”
“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.”
Directed by Peter Miller
Written by Ira Berkow
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