Film looks at Jewish experience in baseball

Film looks at Jewish experience in baseball

Over the course of 140 years, there have been more than 16,700 Major League Baseball players and of that talented group 160 of them have been of the Jewish faith. The new documentary "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" tells the story of Jewish immigrants who came to America at the turn of the last century and learned what it meant to be Americans by embracing the sport of baseball.

"This is the project I had been waiting to do my entire life," said Peter Miller, a longtime collaborator with famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Miller co-produced "Jews and Baseball" with Canadian producer Will Hechter and directed the film. "This was looking at the experience of Jews in America looking through the lens of baseball -- which was America's most iconic cultural institution.

"Baseball is a way in which Jews became American. In a way, baseball was a way to overcome the vicious bigotry that was used against them and this was a story of people finding their way into the mainstream and baseball was the route."

The film covers baseball's earliest days in which Lipman Emanuel Pike, a Jewish player of Dutch origin, led the American League in home runs its first three years of existence, 1871-73, with four, seven and four home runs, and Erskine Mayer, who won 21 games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1914 and 1915. But despite the success of these players, the stereotype of the 2 million Jews that fled Eastern Europe and came to America between 1881 and 1924 was that of non-athletic, more cerebral type.

"You're not supposed to be a ballplayer if you're Jewish," said former White Sox pitcher Marv Rotblatt in the documentary. "If you're Jewish, you're supposed to be an attorney or a doctor."

But that started to change in the early 1930s when New York-born Hank Greenberg came on the scene for the Detroit Tigers. Greenberg had been wooed by his hometown New York Yankees, but with Lou Gehrig entrenched at first base, Greenberg signed with Detroit and immediately helped the Tigers challenge for the American League pennant in 1934. An important part of the film focuses on the decision Greenberg had to make that season about playing baseball during the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In a 1984 interview that was used in the documentary, Greenberg, with the blessing of his rabbi, played on Rosh Hashanah, hitting two home runs in a 2-1 victory over the Red Sox, but 10 days later, Greenberg did not play against the Yankees and instead went to temple in observance of Yom Kippur, making him a true hero to American Jews.

"By not playing on Yom Kippur in 1934 and almost breaking Babe Ruth's single-season home run record in 1938, he helped change the way people perceived American Jews," said Miller.

Al Rosen of the Cleveland Indians, who is interviewed in the documentary, would become another Jewish player who would help break down stereotypes by winning the American League MVP Award in 1953 with 43 home runs and 145 RBIs. Sandy Koufax, who joined Greenberg in the Baseball Hall of Fame as one of the greatest pitchers of all time for the Dodgers, also granted a rare interview for the film.

"As Commissioner Bud Selig said in the documentary about Koufax, 'There's a pride factor involved,'" said author Ira Berkow, who wrote the film's script. "I think overall there was a pride factor in how people like Greenberg, Rosen and Koufax comported themselves, and I think they felt a responsibility and/or obligation to Jewish people in general to handle themselves in the public eye in a respectful way."

"I was honored to be a part of 'Jews And Baseball: An American Love Story,'" said Selig, who, along with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, spoke about Jewish team ownership in the game as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers before becoming the game's Commissioner. "One of the great virtues of baseball is that it draws from cultures around the world, all of which make special contributions. Our game is fortunate that so many remarkable Jewish figures, such as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, have left a legacy that will resonate forever. I hope the film will serve not only as a celebration of the Jewish players who have been critical to our game's unparalleled history, but also as a reflection of the remarkable times in which they lived."

Another big name associated with the documentary is two-time Academy Award-winning actor Dustin Hoffman, who narrated the film after a great deal of coaxing from the director.

"Dustin does not narrate films, generally," said Miller. "We asked and he said, 'I don't normally narrate films, that's not the kind of actor I am,' but then he looked at our rough cut of the film after we called him 30 or 40 times and he said, 'Oh, this is about bigotry and overcoming anti-Semitism, about discrimination and these issues that I grew up with, that really matters to me,' so he agreed to do it."

The filmmakers hope the documentary helps entertain and educate people of all religions that a simple game played on street corners, in cow pastures and in great baseball stadiums can impact an entire culture of people and help them feel more a part of something very special.

"I'm hoping that audiences learn something about the history of America," said Miller. "Not just the Jewish experience in America, but what our country can be and ought to be. We can be a place and should be a place that welcomes everyone that can hit, run, pitch and play the game, should be a part of our American game."

"Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story," released by Seventh Art Releasing, is currently playing in New York and opens in Los Angeles and Kansas City beginning Friday and other cities in the coming weeks. The DVD version should be available in the spring.

Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.