Coming Out Of Left Field

How the Jews Love Baseball

At Bats: Al ‘Hebrew Hammer’ Rosen grew up in Miami but made his name as a muscu- lar power hitter for the Indians in Cleveland from 1947-1956.
At Bats: Al ‘Hebrew Hammer’ Rosen grew up in Miami but made his name as a muscu- lar power hitter for the Indians in Cleveland from 1947-1956.

By Jordana Horn

Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A new documentary, “Jews and Baseball, an American Love Story,” which opened on November 5 in New York, is a film that largely succeeds at telling the story of a great American people (the Jews, that is) via the tale of a great American pastime. It may not be a grand slam, but it’s at least a double.

Oh, I can’t do sports metaphors. Sorry. Bench me. (Is that even what they do in baseball?) Truth be told, even though my family has been in this country for more than 100 years, baseball holds no allure for any of us. I have no recollection of anyone watching any sport at all on television in my home as I was growing up, and this has continued to hold true. I just heard that the World Series ended and that the Giants won. Frankly, that was surprising to me, because I’d been sure the Giants was a football team.

But even though I’m about as far from a baseball fan as a person possibly could be, I understand its appeal and the importance of Sandy Koufax finally speaking about his Jewishness. And the film held my interest (at least initially — more later) because of its take on the sport as a particularized slice of American Jewish history.

By the mid-19th century, the movie (narrated by Dustin Hoffman) states, baseball was the most popular sport in the country. And by the end of the Civil War, Jews were one-half of 1% of the American population. At the end of the 19th century, however, immigration brought up that number to 4% — hardly an insignificant increase.

Within this context, baseball — learning all about it and playing it, whether in official leagues or in pickup games on the street — offered Jews a new golden door into what it was to be not just Jewish, but also American. Baseball became a lingua franca, something for Jews to talk about with their non-Jewish neighbors. Even the Forward is mentioned in the context of this baseball craze, as the film notes inspirational editor Abraham Cahan as a great advocate of Jewish kids learning how to talk baseball. This was particularly important at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise because of increased immigration. To give a sense of the ideological climate at the time, Henry Ford, the film quotes, wrote that America’s problems could be boiled down to three simple words, “too much Jew.”

Seeing the Jewish enthusiasm for baseball, the film points out, scouts looked for a Jewish equivalent of Babe Ruth in order to pack the stands. They found it in Mose Solomon, who, soon dubbed “the Rabbi of Swat,” had the highest batting average of any Jewish major league player. Andy Cohen followed.

Despite the yearning to get the Jewish fans in the stands, the attitude toward Jews on the field was not always so welcoming. Cohen played to the accompaniment of catcalls of “Christ killer,” and recalled that once, when he caught a particularly difficult ball, a fan yelled, “Just like the rest of the Jews — they take everything they can get their hands on.” That being said, Cohen’s career in 1928 playing second base for the New York Giants was a storied one, with “Ice Cream Cohens” — no joke — being sold in the stands. The next year, however, Cohen broke his leg and never returned to the majors.

Enter one of Jewish baseball’s great protagonists, Hank Greenberg, 1935 MVP of the American League and famed game-skipper-due-to-Yom Kippur. Larry King gets to voice the semi-bizarre conspiracy theory that Greenberg didn’t break Ruth’s record because “they would never allow a Jew to break Babe Ruth’s record.” A film could be made about this contention alone, but thankfully, this one glosses over it. I was much more interested in the film’s brief discussion of Moe Berg, an American League catcher who went to Princeton and Columbia universities, spoke several languages and may have worked for the OSS, predecessor of the CIA. I wished more time had been spent on him; a film could be made about this one man alone, who may have, among other things, spied on Japan in the 1930s when sent there as part of an exhibition all-star team.

By the time the film gets to Koufax, another Yom Kippur game skipper, the documentary apparently unintentionally morphs into “Famous Jews In Baseball,” a sort of Jews’ Cooperstown (Jewperstown?) Hall of Fame, and that’s too bad. The appeal of the film, for a non-sports fan, lies in its willingness to examine American history through the prism of one sport, both those who played it and those who love it. By delving into the Jewish use of baseball to assimilate into American culture, the film appeals to fans and nonfans alike, and effectively distinguishes itself from a Major League Baseball “Jewish Greatest Hits” equivalent.

With the historic component being treated as background rather than foreground, the movie regresses into a kind of cinematic Encyclopedia Judaica: Sports Edition. Of course, I’ll concede that there are many people who are tickled by the apparent incongruity of Jews being good at sports and who are delighted by this to a degree that can surely fuel a film, however much I may suspect that such feelings of pride teeter precariously on the edge of self-hatred. (“Can you believe it?? A nerdy Jew — good at sports! What will they think of next?”) As intermarriage rates climb, though, and essentialist Jewish characteristics become more and more difficult to pinpoint, perhaps the delight in such things will be as antiquated and anachronistic as peanuts and Cracker Jack (now verboten, thanks to nut allergies). In other words, for better or for worse, there’s no longer such a thing (if there ever were) as a typical Jew. Maybe Jews in sports will become less of a punch line and more of a nonissue, in which case we’d benefit from a film that explores more of the unique history of a unique people.

Jordana Horn, the New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.