‘Jews and Baseball’: Setting the Record Straight

[5 May 2011]

By Brad Cook

If you’ve watched at least a few episodes of The Daily Show you’ve probably heard host Jon Stewart’s jokes about how “My people aren’t the most gifted athletically.” (He played on his college’s soccer team, so he obviously has some skills in that area.) Of course, such jokes aren’t new: Jews and Baseball opens with a gag from the movie Airplane!, in which a passenger wants some light reading and is given a small leaflet called “Famous Jewish Athletes”.

If there really was any truth to such jokes, though, this documentary wouldn’t exist. It goes straight from that opening joke to a 91-minute chronicle of the history of Jews in the quintessential American sport. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Jews and Baseball begins with the sport’s earliest days, as Jewish immigrants to America sought to assimilate into their newly-adopted country and often found a way to do that through baseball.

Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, who is an historian, journalist Murray Olderman, and historians Peter Levine and Marty Abramowitz guide us through those early days. Abramowitz has amassed a comprehensive collection of baseball cards featuring Jewish players, including the first one to appear on a baseball card, Barney Pelty. We also learn about the players who changed their last names to avoid discrimination; you can’t talk about a subject like this without delving into a few history lessons.

As you’d expect, this documentary continues with the era of the first superstar Jewish ballplayer, Hank Greenberg, and his support for Jackie Robinson, and then on to the all-too-brief careers of powerhouse hitter Al Rosen and pitcher Sandy Koufax, and through to the present day and such players as the now-retired Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis. Along the way, such issues as playing on Jewish holidays are discussed, along with the personal struggles faced by each player.

As we move through the narrative, the authorities I mentioned earlier are joined by sports historian Maury Allen, Rabbi Michael Pauley, Hank Greenberg’s son Steve, current baseball commissioner Bud Selig, Larry King, Ron Howard, Rosen, Koufax, Green, Youkilis, and others. Hank Greenberg, who died in 1986, shows up in archival interviews.

The interviews do a nice job of illuminating the subject matter, both from an insider perspective and from the view of both authorities and fans. I’m not sure why Howard and King were the only celebrities chosen for the fan perspective, but perhaps the logistics of trying to secure more well-known names were too difficult. (I realize that Howard was picked for his devotion to Koufax and the Dodgers, and King because he knew Abner Doubleday personally (yes, I’m joking); I just would have expected more celebrity interviewees, but that’s not a major fault of this documentary.)

Hoffman’s narration is solid—after a while, I forgot it was him, which I think is the best praise you can give a well-known documentary narrator: he did his job so well that his voice blended into the proceedings and wasn’t a distraction.

This DVD has some nice bonus features, including 28 minutes of deleted scenes, five minutes of old newsreels featuring Koufax, and a four-minute video of Sophie Milman singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, part of which is heard in the documentary. The deleted scenes are a nice collection of additional anecdotes, with Koufax figuring prominently in them.

Jews and Baseball is a solid documentary that’s perfect for any baseball fan. I’ve loved the sport since I was a kid, but I still found plenty of new things to learn about it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/140547-jews-and-baseball/