Baseball in the United States has long served as a primary instrument in promoting cultural diversity. When open racism was extremely prevalent, especially during the 1920s and 1930s, baseball was one of the few outlets that caused people to have a more open mind. Fans were often hateful toward Jewish players, but when they performed well on the field and helped lead their team to victory, the anti-Semitism would usually die down.
Narrated by Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story is an interesting and insightful documentary that leaves the viewer with a better understanding of the origins of America’s pastime. In addition to looking back at the greatest Jewish players that ever lived, the documentary touches on the formation of the first players’ union, Jewish players who left baseball to enlist the armed service, and players’ observance of religious holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
While we all know about the harsh struggles that African-Americans went through when they integrated into the all-white leagues, it seems less is known about the adversity that Jewish players overcame when participating in professional sports in the U.S. during the early 20th century. Jews too dealt with harsh racism from fans and members of the media in their earlier days in the league, and many players later related to the struggles of black players trying to break into the major leagues.
Of course, one cannot begin to talk about the history of Jews in baseball without focusing on the legendary lefty, Sandy Koufax, who threw four no-hitters in his short career and is regarded by many as the greatest pitcher that ever lived. However, Director Peter Miller also dives into Koufax's earlier days before he was a star baseball player, as well as the year 1966 when he and Don Drysdale agreed to hold out together for new, higher paying contracts. This was a monumental moment in baseball history, as players around the league learned that they had plenty of muscle to flex in negotiating when they stuck together.
One particular moment captured in Miller’s film is when Hank Greenberg — who was really the first Jewish baseball star — collided with Jackie Robinson on a play at first, then got up and kindly asked Robinson if he was okay. The simple gesture proved to serve as pivotal moment in baseball’s coming of age as a sport for people of all races and walks of life.
There are several key moments like this highlighted throughout to illustrate the steps forward the game has taken over the years, in large thanks to significant contributions from Jewish players, coaches and agents. I also enjoyed the brief tribute to Ebbets Field, which was torn down to make room for an apartment complex once the Dodgers packed it up and left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.
The documentary contains interviews with former Jewish baseball greats like Al Rosen (first Jewish player to win MVP), Shawn Green, Koufax and current Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youklis, in addition to sports historians and long-time celebrity baseball fans Larry King and Ron Howard. Deleted scenes and newsreels of the Dodgers’ 1963 and 1965 World Series, in which Koufax is fanning batters left and right on the mound, are also included in the bonus features segment.
Virtually everything you could ever hope to learn about the history of Jews in professional baseball is in this documentary, and then some. It’s a must-see for any true baseball fan that wants to have a complete grasp on how far the game has come.