It's natural for any minority to celebrate, and be fascinated by, those within their group who achieve cultural recognition and success. So the obvious audience for Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story should be satisfied by director Peter Miller's brisk rundown of Jewish hardball heroes. The problem is that once you get past the barriers that Jewish players dramatically overcame between the early 20th century and post World War II, the rest is precipitously less interesting. Even the best passages here have been covered before in books and other documentaries and Miller never tries to expand upon the extant material by finding a new angle or going for the big think. Jews and Baseball does the trick, as far as it goes, and as a specialized item it should work well on public television.
The doc's early goings mirror David Vyorst's The First Basket, which argued that Jews took up basketball as a way to assimilate into American culture. The same was true for baseball. Between 1881-1924, two million Jews arrived in the United States and it was only natural they'd work their way into every aspect of American life, including sports. Obstacles to success (aside from the stereotype that Jewish were not athletic) included famous anti-Semites like automaker Henry Ford, who blamed Jews for the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Still, Jewish players managed to put a positive stamp on the game surprisingly early, with most changing their names to hide their ethnicity. This ended in 1926 when New York Giants manager John McGraw signed slugger Andy Cohen in an attempt to lure Jews to the ballpark to compete with the crosstown Yankees. Cohen, according to reports, demonstrated "all the natural characteristics of his race" which, in turn, demonstrated that acceptance of Jews was a long ways off.
As a documentary storyteller, Miller doesn't forge any new frontiers. This is a standard, PBS-looking assemblage of archive footage, talking heads (scholars, rabbis and Larry King), narration (a rather lifeless Dustin Hoffman) and music. It's jaunty but stubbornly light, especially compared to Aviva Kempner's excellent 1998 effort The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. In using a specific example to represent the whole, Kempner gets deeper into the issue than Miller. His recap of Greenberg's career, though, is still quite good. Greenberg's decision not to play on Yom Kippur during the heated pennant race of 1934 was the first major instance where the collision of religious observance and the secular baseball world made national headlines. Miller wisely expands the story to include Greenberg's courageous defense of Jackie Robinson at a time when baseball's first African-American player was receiving death threats.
The section on Moe Berg, the catcher and World War II spy, hits the highlights well enough (for a more complete accounting, read Nicholas Dawidoff's The Catcher Was a Spy). Miller's big coup is landing an interview with press-averse Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. It's a wasted opportunity, though, unless you're critically interested in how Koufax adjusted his pitching schedule so he wouldn't have to start on Yom Kippur. He's not asked his opinion on the history of Jews in baseball, nor does he analyze whatever internal or external pressures he may have felt prioritizing Judaism over the sport. Indeed, Jews and Baseball, written by New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow, is too heavy on biography and too light on emotion and socio-religious investigation. By the time we reach the 1970s, names are being carted out as if Judaism itself is taking a victory lap. Ken Holtzman (most wins by a Jew), Ron Blomberg (baseball's first designated hitter) and baseball commissioner Bud Selig should all be proud of their accomplishments. But their religion, by that point, was just trivia and we have no strong indication whether Judaism had any impact on their baseball careers or their decision to pursue baseball. For many, we're not even sure if they're practicing Jews or if they just enjoy the occasional bagel and schmear. Prioritizing statistics and on-field accomplishments over larger questions of religion, culture and community makes Jews and Baseball feel like an afternoon ballgame in August; it's pleasant, yet lazy.
Distributor: Seventh Art Releasing
Director: Peter Miller
Producers: William Hechter and Peter Miller
Running time: 90 min
Release date: November 5 NY, November 19 LA