Jews and baseballby Ryan Whirty
December 10, 2010
If there’s one overarching theme of the new documentary, “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” it’s a familiar one—that the grand old game can act as a conduit for successive generations of immigrants to become an integral part of the rapidly diversifying fabric of American society and culture.
And, say the film’s creative forces, the millions of Jewish immigrants have poured through Ellis Island and beyond have been no different.
"The Jewish experience in baseball is much like that of any other ethnic group attempting to assimilate into America, complete with all the barriers, stereotyping and, eventually, acceptance granted and earned through obvious and appreciated skills," says Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Ira Berkow, who penned the film’s script.
Director Peter Miller, who apprenticed with famed "Baseball" documentarian Ken Burns before creating his own love letter to the national pastime, wanted to capture the Jewish community’s passion for what he calls America’s “iconic institution,” one that inspires devotion among the countless cultures that have embraced the sport’s universal allure.
"Baseball has been a central institution when people come to America," Miller says. "They fall in love with this beautiful sport."
While "Jews and Baseball" devotes a great deal of attention to the two towering figures in Jewish baseball history—slugger Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy Koufax (who gave a rare, in-depth, on-camera interview for the documentary)—the film also spotlights dozens of lesser-known but hugely influential figures. The documentary traces an unbroken line of great Hebrew personalities, beginning with Lipman Pike, who, in 1866, became one of baseball’s first paid professionals when the Philadelphia Athletics put him on their payroll for his blazing speed and powerful bat.
"Jews and Baseball" then traces the Jewish baseball lineage through successive decades as both the game and the country’s immigrant population came of age. The film documents, for example, legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw’s efforts to lure the city’s burgeoning Jewish population to the Polo Grounds by recruiting a Jewish player.
McGraw first settles on New York native Moses Solomon, whose 49 home runs for a minor league team in Kansas enticed the Giants to sign him in 1923 in the hopes he could develop into a slugger rivaling the crosstown Yankees’ Babe Ruth. In fact, Solomon’s prowess at the plate had earned him nicknames like "the Rabbi of Swat."
But, severely hampered by painful deficiencies in the field and an inability to duplicate his minor-league power production, Solomon failed to become the great Hebrew hope McGraw desired. The manager then purchased the contract of second baseman Andy Cohen for $20,000 in 1926, hoping the Baltimore native could do what Solomon couldn’t — succeed in both playing performance and drawing power.
Cohen fared much better than the Rabbi of Swat did; after an initial dispute over salary, Cohen became a New York hero on Opening Day in 1928, when he drilled two singles and a double, drove in two runs and scored two of his own in the Giants’ 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves. At the game’s conclusion, thousands of jubilant Jewish fans flooded the field and lofted Cohen—who, unlike other Jewish players, refused to "Americanize" his name to avoid discrimination—on their shoulders.
Cohen went on to a successful major league career and delivered on McGraw’s goal of attracting Jewish fans. In fact, the team launched a marketing blitz to capitalize on the player’s popularity, a campaign that included the selling of "ice cream Cohens" at the ballpark.
"Jews and Baseball" highlights numerous other Jewish stars, from 1953 American League MVP Al Rosen to more contemporary standouts like Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis. The film even features an interview with African-American player Elliott Maddox, who converted to Judaism. (The documentary also debunks the myth that Hall of Famer Rod Carew converted to the faith after marrying his Jewish wife.)
Off-the-field innovators are also given screen time, such as the growing numbers of Jewish team owners to "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" co-writer Albert Von Tilzer to attorney Marvin Miller, who helped revolutionize the economics of the game as the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Writer Berkow also has his favorite figures, including southpaw hurler Marv Botblatt, who, like Berkow, grew up on the North Side of Chicago, where they both pitched at public high schools. In addition, the diminutive Rotblatt—who measured all of 5 feet, 6 inches—seemed to Berkow like a scrappy David against major-league Goliaths. The fact that the colorful Rotblatt’s interview for "Jews and Baseball" was witty and touching only endeared the pitcher to the journalist.
"In a hugely modest way, I identified with him," Berkow says of Rotblatt. "The fact that he was so funny in the film made it all the more pleasurable to me."
Berkow also fondly recalls Moe Berg, whose decidedly modest baseball career paled in comparison to his second life as an American spy during World War II and the ensuing Cold War. Berkow savors his memories of the tales of intrigue and adventure Berg spun as the two sat in the press boxes of Yankee and Shea stadiums.
Berkow also reveals an affection for 29-year-old Adam Greenberg, whose heartbreaking story concludes the film. As a youth in Connecticut, Greenberg longed to become a major-league ballplayer, a dream that, for one fleeting moment, came true in July 2005 when the Cubs called him up from Double-A West Tennessee.
Greenberg was sent to the plate as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of a contest against the Florida marlins, but instead of becoming a shining moment of hard-earned success, the at-bat turned to a nightmare when pitcher Valerio de Los Santos struck Greenberg in the back of the head with a 92-mph fastball on the very first pitch.
The Cubs rookie suffered a concussion and was placed on the disabled list for the rest of the season. Suffering from crippling headaches, vertigo and an understandable hesitation at the plate, Greenberg was sent to the minors after the 2005 season, where he has stayed ever since, unable to get back on track a career that now consists of a single major-league at-bat.
But "Jews and Baseball" also addresses the powerful social and culture undercurrents of the Jewish baseball experience, including the bigotry and stereotyping faced by Jews on and off the field. From the barrage of slurs and obscenities leveled from the stands and opposing dugouts to the organized and concerted attempts by powerful and influential bigots to discredit and scapegoat Jews, the film attempts to shed light on the darker aspects of Jewish athletic life.
The documentary examines, for example, the infamous anti-Semitical atmosphere in Detroit, where automaker Henry Ford blamed the 1919 Black Sox scandal on "too much Jew" and Father Charles Coughlin spewed bigoted invective from the altar. Such prejudice challenged the proud Greenberg, the sport’s first Hebrew superstar. The film also discusses Greenberg’s heroics in the context of world affairs in the 1930s, when Nazi Germany was developing the policies that led to the Holocaust; the Tigers slugger viewed every home run he smacked as a personal repudiation of Hitler’s searing hate.
"Jewish players were often demonized by bitter discrimination," director Miller says. "But after all the vicious things that were said and done, Jewish players (like Greenberg) still succeeded."
The film also addresses the subtle—and often not-so-subtle—stereotyping that casts Jews as lacking sufficient physical and athletic talent to become athletic heroes. The documentary even begins with a famous scene from the classic comedy spoof "Airplane!" in which a flight passenger ask a stewardess for some "light reading" and is given a single-page pamphlet on Jewish sports stars.
Again, however, dozens of figures—from Lipman Pike on down through Kevin Youkilis—have consistently debunked such beliefs, much like other American minorities have overcome the stereotypes facing them.
"One of the things that set Jews apart in this sense is that there was a belief that 'the People of the Book' were not talented in athletics," Berkow says. "The Jewish community knew this wasn’t true, but how satisfying to in fact prove it on the national playing field, with and against others who had at some time shared the immigrant experience."
The film, which is narrated by actor Dustin Hoffman and is currently playing in select theaters across the country, features interviews with dozens of former and current players, journalists, historians and celebrity fans like Larry King and Ron Howard, who recounts his fond memories of listening intently to Vin Scully’s broadcast of Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. Included is the testimony of historian and superfan Marty Abramowitz, who has collected the trading cards of countless Jewish stars, beginning with Pelty, who was the first Hebrew player to be immortalized on cardboard.
Ultimately, "Jews and Baseball" draws together the images and words, both spoken and printed, of experts and intimate associates of the men and women who have contributed to the sterling Jewish baseball legacy. Miller says that while, at least statistically, Jews have comprised a fraction of the sport’s rosters—out of roughly 17,000 athletes who have played in the major leagues, only about 160 have been Jewish—their social, cultural and moral contributions to baseball have been inestimable.
When towering figures like Greenberg and Koufax chose not to play on high holy days, instead remaining true to their faith, they inspired millions of Jews across the country and the world and earned the respect of just as many members of other ethnicities. Such principled actions have coupled with on-the-field accomplishments by numerous Jewish players to form a strong, vibrant baseball legacy.
But, as "Jews and Baseball" shows, while the sport has benefited greatly from Jewish contributions, the Jewish population has received something in return—a love of a sport that is uniquely intertwined with American heritage. While Jews have enhanced baseball, baseball has in turn immeasurably enhanced Jewish life.
Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y., who specializes in sports history.