Confronted with nine Jews, most people would probably guess “Supreme Court” rather than “ball club,” but that’s precisely the kind of bias that “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” successfully sends to the showers. Charting the presence of prominent Jewish major leaguers in every decade, their relationship to the world of big-time ball and the careers of such greats as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, helmer Peter Miller’s historical docu strikes out a stadium-load of assumptions and, after a modest theatrical season, should enjoy a hearty afterlife in the educational and DVD divisions.
Although he covers much of the same ground (unavoidably) as does Aviva Kempner’s 1998 “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” and includes info covered in TV docus about some of this film’s other most famous subjects, Miller takes a much broader view of the relationship of Jews to the major leagues, stressing how important an embrace of baseball was to an embrace of America: Immigrant Jews at the turn of the 19th century knew it was through baseball that one became American. Eventually, baseball realized how important Jews could be to the sport: As Miller tells us, it wasn’t benevolence but business that led the New York Giants’ John McGraw to sign Andy Cohen, the first real Jewish star, a player who got Jews flocking to the Polo Grounds (and buying ballpark food like “ice cream Cohens”).
It was Greenberg, though, who was the pivotal figure in Jewish baseball, and possibly “the most important American Jew” in history, according to one of Miller’s commentators, Rabbi Michael Paley. This was not just because of his playing (Greenberg hit 58 home runs in 1938, was a five-time All-Star and two-time American League MVP). When the 6-foot-4-inch first-baseman refused to play on Yom Kippur — just as the Detroit Tigers were closing in on the 1934 pennant — it was “transformational,” Paley says; baseball was important, but not that important.
With terrific narration by Dustin Hoffman, “Jews and Baseball” makes effective use of archival footage and interviews, the most spectacular of which is a lengthy sequence featuring the usually reclusive Koufax, who reminisces about his career and its relationship to his religion. It’s debatable who is the most important Jew in the history of the major leagues; Koufax was a three-time Cy Young Award winner and the first pitcher to throw four no-hitters. He, too, declined to pitch on Yom Kippur, but in Koufax’s case, the game in question was the first of the 1965 World Series.
Greenberg may have had a tougher time of it — his era, the ’30s, was a period of fierce bigotry and anti-Semitism, the weekly broadcasts of the scurrilous Father Coughlin and conflicted American opinion over the situation in Europe. But almost every player featured in “Jews and Baseball” had his difficulties (even Elliott Maddox, who was African-American and converted). Most also have good, if oft-told, stories: Moe Berg, who caught for several American League teams and became a lawyer in the off-season, supposedly spoke seven languages (“and couldn’t hit in any of them,” as the saying went) and became a spy for the OSS during World War II. Al Rosen was hard-slugging star for the Indians who retired rather than be traded (by Hank Greenberg, ironically, who had become Cleveland’s general manager). Marv Rotblatt may have been the shortest pitcher (at just 5-foot-6) in Major League history.
Production values are very good, with clever music cues (“Short People” for Rotblatt), and a warm, intelligent text by the first-rate sportswriter Ira Berkow.