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Two things in American society are transmitted from generation to generation: religion and sports fandom. In Boston, the expression “we’re raising our children Red Sox fans” is as common as “we’re raising our children Catholic.” And there is no sport more deeply rooted in American society and history than baseball. So in “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” a film screened Sunday at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it was only logical that American Jews, originally an immigrant community like many others, would latch onto baseball as a means to integrate with society.
“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” is a chronological survey of Jewish baseball players over the last century and a half, beginning with Lipman Pike, the first professional Jewish baseball player, who played midway through the Nineteenth Century.
The film spends the bulk of it’s time on two athletes: Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.
Greenberg was a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 30s and 40s. He won two American League MVPs and two World Series rings with the Tigers, and he made national headlines by sitting out a 1934 game that fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, despite the Tigers being in the middle of a pennant race. He also came within two home runs of tying Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. He was widely considered to be the first Jewish athletic superstar, and accomplished all of this despite enduring constant anti-Semitic jeering from both opposing fans and players (whom Greenberg was always ready to fight). The film ends his section with an interesting passing of the torch: in 1947, Greenberg played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in what would be his final year. They played the Brooklyn Dodgers on May 15, and up to the plate strolled rookie Jackie Robinson, the first African-American admitted to the MLB. Robinson bunted and sprinted to first, colliding with Greenberg. The two helped each other up, and Greenberg gave Robinson some encouraging words. After the game, Robinson told the New York Times, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”
Sandy Koufax, meanwhile, pitched for the Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Dodgers from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. His accomplishments include four no-hitters (one perfect game), seven All-Star selections, four World Series rings (and two World Series MVP awards), and three Cy Young Awards (in which he led the league all three times in ERA, wins and strikeouts). Koufax also made headlines by sitting out the first game of the 1965 World Series to observe Yom Kippur, which makes his winning the series MVP award that year all the more impressive (he pitched a three-hit shut out on two-days’ rest to win the seventh game). Koufax was also instrumental in increasing players’ salary control, holding out with teammate Don Drysdale before the 1965 season to keep the Dodgers from using one pitcher’s low salary to justify keeping the other’s low. This holdout led directly to the increased power of the MLB Players Association, headed by Marvin Miller at the time, also Jewish.
Aside from Greenberg and Koufax, easily the most historically famous Jewish baseball players, there are a number of other stories told. Moe Berg was a journeyman catcher in the 1930s who doubled as an OSS (precursor to the CIA) spy. Al Rosen was the first player unanimously voted the American League MVP in 1953, when he led the league in home runs (43), runs batted in (145), runs (115), slugging percentage (.613), and total bases (367). Ron Blomberg was the first designated hitter ever used, in 1973.
The film does an excellent job of paralleling baseball history with American Jewish history. When New York City began to swell with Jewish immigrants in the 1920s, the New York Giants sought a Jewish athlete to bring in fans. They hired Andy Cohen, and it worked. When America went to war against Adolf Hitler, Greenberg left the MLB and enlisted. And by the time Koufax entered the league, Jews had moved from the over-populated cities and into the suburbs, showing just as much support in Los Angeles as they did back in Brooklyn.
Fittingly enough, the film begins to lose itself when it introduces Bud Selig, current MLB commissioner and former Milwaukee Brewers owner. The film speeds through the Selig era of baseball, with its problems as varied as steroid use and overblown salaries. It mentions former Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green, then ends with a brief list of current Jewish baseball players, most notably Kevin Youkilis, whom Martin Abramowitz, founder of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., calls the next great Jewish superstar. After the film, Abramowitz asked the crowd whether history will show Youkilis or Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun to be this decade’s more important Jewish athlete. Given Boston’s Forbes Magazine listing as the best sports town in the country, this seems like an easy question.
“To me, this is the story about how a group that has been on the outside, a group that has been marginalized and treated badly, found its way into the American mainstream through America’s most iconic cultural institution, which is baseball,” said director Peter Miller afterward. “To me, it’s a story about overcoming stereotypes and overcoming bigotry, and having a people who belong here become a part of here.”
If Miller’s goal was to show how the Jews’ place in baseball was iconic of their changing place in American society, he succeeds. But a certain Red Sox game would have made a proper bookend to this tale. On August 8, 2005, Youkilis and two former Red Sox, Gabe Kapler and Adam Stern, all took the field at the same time. It was a record for most Jews on the field at one time during the expansion era of baseball, but it went relatively unnoticed (although WEEI did joke about it the next day, saying that the fourth Jewish player was former-shortstop Edgar Renteria). The reason: no one realized it, because Jews have finally reached a point where they are so integrated with America that it no longer becomes their defining characteristic.
They are Americans, same as everyone else.