The Aug. 19 screening of the new documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story began in a most appropriate way. “Shalom,” said Dave Kaplan, executive director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, which served as the site for the film’s local debut.
The small theater was sold out, with fans having reserved their seats weeks in advance. Folding chairs were set up to accommodate the extra guests.
“This is a film about an ethnic group attempting to assimilate into America through baseball,” said Ira Berkow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who served as writer and creative consultant for the film. Berkow introduced the 90-minute film and answered questions at its conclusion.
He said several titles for the Ken Burns-style documentary had been discussed; one that brought a hearty laugh from the audience was Jews and Baseball: Who Knew?
Directed by Peter Miller, produced by Will Hechter and Miller, and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film juxtaposes Jewish participation in the Major Leagues with the collective experience of Jews at various stages in American history since the late 1800s.
With the late-19th and early-20th-century influx of immigrants trying to win acceptance, several aspiring athletes changed their family name (including five unrelated Cohens) to deflect anti-Semitism. When the teams played on the road, their travels sometimes brought them to hotels that would not accept Jews. Bill Terry, manager of a New York Giants club with Jews on its roster, told one, “You will take all of us or you will take none of us.”
Most of the middle-aged viewers at the museum appreciated the contributions and sacrifices of such superstars as Hank Greenberg. The legendary outfielder played with the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and ’40s — a time when anti-Semitism was at a high point due to the influence of Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Greenberg served in the military for four years, losing peak playing time. He also famously refused to play on Yom Kippur, as did Sandy Koufax a generation later.
Koufax’s on-screen interview is a rarity for the notoriously reclusive Dodgers hero who retired in 1966 at the age of 30 due to an arthritic elbow. During the Q&A, Berkow said Koufax had characteristically been reluctant to participate in the project but called Berkow to acquiesce after the writer sent a letter, appealing to his sense of “tribal loyalties.” “Jews and baseball,” Koufax said with a degree of modest resignation; “It doesn’t really make much sense if I’m not in it.”
Members of the audience represented for the most part local synagogues. But the award for most distance traveled went to Howard Goldstein, a Philadelphia lawyer and collector of Jewish baseball memorabilia. He was especially thrilled to see Koufax on film. “It’s a real coup,” said Goldstein, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Sam Bernstein, a resident of West Orange and fellow SABR member, agreed. “Overall, it was great,” he said, although he was disappointed some stories and personalities were omitted, a casualty of the cutting room floor.
For a list of screenings of Jews and Baseball, visit jewsandbaseball.com/news.html.