| Every ethnic group in the melting pot called America takes great pride in identifying with those with similar backgrounds who have made it big in sports. This historical documentary directed by Peter Miler and written by Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter Ira Berkow focuses on the connection between Jewish Americans and our national pastime of baseball.
This nonfiction movie breaks down the stereotype that Jews are not adept physically and unable to compete in sports. It also shows how baseball was the conduit to being part of the community as immigrant Jewish boys took up the game to assimilate into a new culture. The one constant everyone can relate to expressed by frequent interviewee Larry King is kids remembering playing catch with their fathers. This recollection will put a lump in your throat and bring tears to your eyes.
The movie, expertly narrated by Dustin Hoffman, is loaded with trivia. The movie instills some Jewish humor by tracing baseball’s roots to the first line of the Bible referring to “In the big inning.”
Litman Emanuel Pike, a Jew of Dutch origin, was one of the first players to receive money for playing baseball. He received $20 a week from the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866. He led the first organized league in home runs during the first three years of its existence.
St. Louis Browns player Barney Pelty, known as “the Yiddish Curver,” was the first Jewish ballplayer to appear on a baseball card.
Manager and part-owner John McGraw of the New York Giants, in an effort to attract Jewish ticket buyers and counter the draw of Babe Ruth (“The Sultan of Swat”), signed Moses “Mo” Solomon, affectionately dubbed “The Rabbi of Swat.” He went 3 for 8 in his career and his lifetime batting average of .375 is the highest for a Jewish ballplayer. A salary dispute caused him to opt for pro football instead. McGraw next turned to 5-foot-8 second baseman Andy Cohen. He had thick dark hair, dark skin and a keen mentality. He attracted immigrant Jews from Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx to the Polo Grounds and a popular concession item was “ice cream Cohens.”
Historian Marty Abramowitz claims that slugging first basemen Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers is historically responsible for the attachment of American Jews to America’s game. Greenberg’s emergence as the first heroic Jewish superstar brought a whole generation of Jewish fans into the game. Their children and grandchildren went on to become sportswriters, executives, players and fans. The movie covers the highlights of Greenberg’s illustrious career. His decisions not to play on Yom Kippur in the thick of a pennant race and putting the major leagues on hold for four years while serving his country in the Army during World War II speak volumes on why he is revered with pride as a truly great Jewish role model.
The debate over who was the greatest Jewish baseball player is brought into focus with a terrific segment on lefty pitcher Sandy Koufax. Koufax captured the hearts of the Brooklyn-Los Angeles Dodgers fans and earned the respect of his baseball colleagues. This great artist combined amazing control, economy of motion, pinpoint accuracy and an intelligent brain to throw four no-hitters and win the Cy Young award three times. The usually reclusive Koufax appears in a rare interview and candidly recalls playing basketball, his baseball career and honoring his religion. The movie takes you back through archival footage to famous moments in his career and even includes play-by-play commentary by longtime broadcaster Vin Scully.
Other famous Jewish major leaguers covered in this wonderful documentary include Moe Berg, Al Rosen, Marv Rotblatt, Ken Holtzman, Steve Stone, Mike Epstein, Ron Blomberg and Shawn Green. Jews currently comprise about 3 percent of the major leagues and today’s superstars include Kevin Youkilis (Boston Red Sox), Ryan Braun (Milwaukee Brewers) and Ian Kinsler (Texas Rangers).
Other key Jewish figures in baseball mentioned include Marvin Miller, former executive director of the players’ union, who is credited with bringing down the reserve clause and instituting free agency, and Commissioner Bud Selig, former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
An entertaining interlude comes from the singing of the unofficial anthem of baseball “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the most frequently played song in America after “Happy Birthday” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The words of this early-20th century Tin Pan Alley song were set to music by Albert Von Tilzer, a Jew who took his mother’s maiden name after being born Albert Gumm.
This engaging and well-put-together documentary has universal appeal to sports fans, regardless of ethnic background. It has a running time of 91 minutes that passes by much too quickly. It is now playing exclusively for a limited engagement this weekend at Screenland Crown Center.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"