Did you know “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” ranks as the most frequently played song in America after “Happy Birthday” and the “Star Spangled Banner”? And were you aware that a Jewish writer composed the anthem? Impress your sports aficionado friends with his name, Albert Von Tilzer, at your next cocktail party.
The Jewish love affair with baseball is detailed in the new documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story (Clear Lake Historical Productions). Written by Ira Berkow, directed by Peter Miller, and narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film chronicles the impact of Jewish players on the sport and the sport’s impact on American Jews.
In the film, Rabbi Michael Paley, a fan of the game, likens the start of the baseball season to the head of the Jewish year. “We can win this year,” he said, “and otherwise, there’s always next year.”
The film is being released with screenings around the world, including in Chicago this spring and summer.
The Anti-Defamation League will present the Chicago premiere of Jews and Baseball on Thursday, April 14, at 6 pm at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago. Berkow, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times sports columnist, will speak following the screening.
The film will also be screened followed by a softball game at the Holiday Star Theater in Park Forest on Sunday, July 10.
Ever since Jews reached the American shores in droves around the turn of the 19th century, we’ve been addicted to America’s great pastime. Back when Jews were considered the “other,” striving to assimilate into society, the baseball field was the great equalizer.
“The film tells the story of an ethnic group who happens to be Jewish who attempt as immigrants to assimilate into America through the focus of baseball,” Berkow said. “This could be the story of Blacks, Latinos, or Italians. Baseball was a way to become more American.”
When slugger Hank Greenberg emerged as the first Jewish superstar in the 1930s, American Jews rejoiced.
Greenberg’s son Steve and granddaughter Melanie are interviewed in the documentary. “It’s easier for Jews now, but I still think when a Jew accomplishes something that a Jew isn’t supposed to be able to accomplish, they’re acting on behalf of their community,” Melanie said. “I [still] feel a sense of pride when I see a Jewish ball player.”
Then in 1965, every Jewish kid and parent alike kvelled when Sandy Koufax opted not to pitch in Game One of the World Series because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Paley recalls the excitement as a youngster in watching Koufax, a fellow Jew, on the field. “This piece of perfection, a Jew, not imposing, and like one of the kids in your neighborhood,” Paley said. “…You could say to yourself, if Sandy Koufax, maybe me.”
The film—chock full of game footage, vintage newsreels, and archival and new interviews with players, fans including Larry King and Ron Howard, and historians—documents contributions of Jewish players, from Lipman Pike to Moe Berg, Greenberg, Al Rosen, Koufax, Adam Greenberg, Shawn Green, and Kevin Youkilis, spanning the history of the game. In a rare interview, Hall of Fame pitcher Koufax agreed to be interviewed in the documentary.
A poignant moment of the film follows ball player Adam Greenberg, who continues his attempt to return to the majors after being hit in the head in his first and only Major League appearance with the Chicago Cubs in 2005.
The documentary chronicles the full circle journey of Jews making it America from the nascent days of the game when anti-Semitic slurs were chanted at the Jewish players from the bleachers to today when Bud Selig, a Jew, sits at the pinnacle of the sport as commissioner of Major League Baseball. “Forty or 50 years ago, the thought that a Jew cold be the commissioner of baseball would have been significantly far-fetched,” said Selig in the film. “…That might have been the understatement of the year.”
Berkow, who now resides in Manhattan, grew up a Cubs fan on Chicago’s West Side playing Little League and then high school baseball as a pitcher and first baseman. “As kids, we would sneak into Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park on a regular basis,” he said. “And we would play stickball in the allies on the West Side. All of those memories are part of my heritage. Baseball is part of the romance of growing up in America.”
Tickets for the Chicago premiere of “Jews and Baseball” at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies on Thursday, April 14, at 6 p.m. are available at www.adl.org/jewsandbaseball. For information call Elana Stern at (312) 782-5080, ext. 254.
“Jews and Baseball” will also be shown in the South Suburbs this summer on Sunday morning, July 10 at the Holiday Star Theater at 340 Main Street in Park Forest. After the show, there will be a community event including a 3-inning softball game at Park Forest's Central Park on Field D. For more information, call (708) 798-1884, email email@example.com, or visit www.c-j-c.org/.