Play Ball, Just Not On Yom Kippur
Wed, 09/15/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
Sandy Koufax featured in “Jews and Baseball.”
Sandy Koufax featured in “Jews and Baseball.”

For a baseball nut like me, the memory of Sandy Koufax eschewing a World Series start on Yom Kippur leaves recollections of my bar mitzvah (the following season, er, year) in the dust.

Naturally, the existence of a new documentary film, “Jews and Baseball:  An American Love Story” impressed itself upon my consciousness instantly, and I’m delighted to say that, seeing the film, I’m delighted. Written by former Times sportswriter Ira Berkow and directed by Peter Miller, the film is a genial history of the parallels between the Jewish-American experience and the game, from its early days as an amateur pastime up to the present.

Intriguingly, for all the considerable affinity that Jews have had with baseball, an excellent vehicle for assimilation, as Abraham Cahan once noted, it is not a sport that has provided that many Jewish heroes, especially compared to boxing or basketball. Those are sports that were dominated by Jews for decades at a time. But baseball has always been the first love of Jewish kids, despite its rural resonances. At times, as the film points out, that love has been returned; John McGraw, eager to stake a claim on behalf of the Giants to the thousands of Jewish fans of Harlem and the nearby Bronx during the 1910s and ’20s, sought in vain for a Jewish player of star quality. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the delighted recipients of lavish Jewish attention, particularly after the team added Jackie Robinson who became a sort of surrogate Jew. Jewish Dodger fans knew a fellow rebel against prejudice when they saw him.

Not surprisingly, though, much of the film’s running time is spent on the careers of three great Jewish stars of the game, Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen and Sandy Koufax. In a rare interview, Koufax reveals himself as a strikingly intelligent and articulate man, for those of us who may have forgotten during his long absence from the limelight. Rosen, too, emerges as what my grandma used to call “a smart cookie”; one wonders if his abrupt retirement at 32 didn’t rob him of entrance to Cooperstown.

The filmmakers draw on some of the usual suspects — Larry King, again? --- but they find a wonderfully astute observer in Rabbi Rebecca Alpert and have the good sense to return frequently to historian Peter Levine, who is particularly adept at putting the on-field action into a larger context. The result is a likeable film on a near-and-dear subject.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” will screen at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place) on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. The director and Bridgeport Bluefish outfielder Adam Greenberg will be at the screening. For information, go to www. mjhnyc.org. The film will also be shown Oct. 4 in the Port Jefferson Documentary Film Series and at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center (Commack), and Oct. 5 at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue).