If you think African Americans were the only group to face an uphill battle toward acceptance on the baseball field, you’re sorely mistaken.
Peter Miller’s new documentary, “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” shows us how difficult it was for Jewish Americans in America’s Game.
An early star for the New York Giants, Andy Cohen was often called “Christ killer” by fans, even in his home ballpark. Hank Greenberg, the first Jewish baseball superstar, was also a victim of racism; people threw pork chops at him on the field. After Arnold Rothstein was accused of fixing the 1919 World Series, Henry Ford – yes, that Henry Ford – wrote that the biggest problem with baseball was “too much Jew.” Hotel owners in the South even threatened to ban Jewish players from their establishments.
In addition to countless acts of racism, Jews also fell victim to a stereotype that they were simply no good at sports, a stereotype that persists to this day. In fact, the opening scene of “Jews and Baseball” is a clip from the popular comedy “Airplane,” where a passenger request some “light” reading material from a flight attendant. The attendant produces a pamphlet titled “Famous Jewish Sports Heroes.”
But if anything, “Jews and Baseball” – narrated perfectly by Dustin Hoffman – lets us know those stereotypes are wrong. In fact, many of the best baseball players in history have been Jewish.
At the very top of the list is the aforementioned Greenberg, a Hall of Famer who chased Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1938. And just like Hank Aaron, who chased Ruth’s career home run record decades later, Greenberg faced a huge outcry from the public – How could a Jew beat the Bambino?
Miller’s documentary also features extensive interviews with two of the other most famous Jewish ballplayers, pitcher Sandy Koufax, arguably the most dominating pitcher of his era, and Al “Flip” Rosen, an All-Star slugger for the Cleveland Indians.
“Jews and Baseball” also discusses Mo Berg, the Jewish catcher who served as a spy for the U.S. Government , as well as two people who influenced baseball outside the diamond. Albert Von Tilzer wrote the music for “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” which is not only a baseball tradition, but is the third-most played song in the country, behind “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” And Marvin Miller, formerly the president of the MLB Players Association, fought alongside Curt Flood to establish free agency in baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig (also a Jew) says Miller should be in the Hall of Fame, and broadcaster Red Barber said the three most important people in baseball history were Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller.
For fans in I-70 Baseball territory, there’s plenty here for you as well. Some of the most prominent Jewish baseball people have connections to St. Louis and Kansas City. Barney Pelty, a pitching star for the St. Louis Browns in the early 1900s, was the first Jew to be featured on a baseball card. Ruben Ewing was a star for the Cardinals in the same era; Ewing, like many other Jewish ballplayers back then, changed his last name from “Cohen” to be more readily accepted by fans. Art Shamsky, who grew up in St. Louis, played for the World Champion 1969 Mets, and pitcher Kenny Holtzman also grew up in St. Louis. The record for most career wins by a Jewish pitcher belongs not to Koufax, but to Holtzman.
Fewer connections can be easily made to Jews and Kansas City baseball, but the most prominent one is extremely important: the late Ewing and Muriel Kauffman, the father and mother of the Kansas City Royals, were Jewish.
Miller’s documentary also points to some more modern-day Jewish ballplayers, many of whom have achieved All-Star status, including Kevin Youkilis, Shawn Green, Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler, Brad Ausmus, Jason Marquis and others.
Perhaps the most poignant portion of the documentary is the story of Adam Greenberg, a Chicago Cubs prospect who in 2005 was hit in the head by a pitch in his first (and, so far, only) Major League at-bat.
“Jews and Baseball” is informative and entertaining, and should be considered one of the finest baseball documentaries ever made. Not only is it a comprehensive history of Jews in the sport, it also highlights the struggles faced by Jewish athletes in America.
The film also sheds light on the surprisingly parallel paths of Jews and African Americans in the game.
Elliott Maddox, an outfielder for the Yankees, Rangers and Tigers in the 1970s, summed it up perfectly: as an African American who converted to Judaism, Maddox said he was a good two-strike hitter.
The two strikes were that he was black and a Jew.
“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story” now playing at the Screenland Crown Center, Kansas City, MO. Visit www.screenland.com for showtimes.
Matt Kelsey is a Royals writer and the content editor for I-70 Baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.