February 20th, 2011
06:00 AM ET
By Dave Schechter, CNN Senior National Editor
Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) – I loved to play baseball as a boy, but any illusions I harbored about making it to the big leagues ended at age 12, when I faced – and watched, the bat not moving – my first curve ball.
That pitch came from the left arm of Ross Baumgarten, a junior high school classmate in a suburb north of Chicago, who went on to pitch for the hometown White Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates.
That curve ball was just one of the memories I recalled as my wife, our 12-year-old son and I watched “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” a film directed by Peter Miller, written by New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow and narrated by actor Dustin Hoffman.
The movie is touring the country, mostly at Jewish congregations and film festivals, including in Atlanta, where it debuted on opening night.
Baumgarten may have been omitted, but the film tells the story of a somewhat surprising number of Jewish ballplayers who succeeded beyond the dreams of most boys, reaching the major leagues.
Before the film rolled, a youth choir led 2,500 people at the historic Fox Theater in singing the National Anthem. Then came “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” – lyrics by Jack Norworth, an Episcopalian, and music by Albert Von Tilzer, a Jew. Accompanied by the theater’s organist, most of the crowd sang along. Then, wearing a baseball glove and tossing a ball in the air, a local cantor performed it again as a solo – this time in Yiddish.
Immigrant Jews in the 20th century, many from Eastern European communities where Yiddish was spoken, wanted their children to retain their religious heritage while adopting a new national identity. Playing baseball was one way of achieving this goal.
A handful of those Jewish pros gained prominence over the decades. Two became legends in many Jewish households.
Hank Greenberg was a big man, physically and otherwise, a power-hitting first baseman in the 1930s and 1940s who won individual honors, threatened Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record and led the Detroit Tigers to championships.
“Jews and Baseball” takes note of an incident in May 1947, the last season of Greenberg’s career. Playing first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was knocked to the ground in a collision with Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the modern era of the major leagues, who laid down a bunt and scampered to second base on the play.
Robinson had suffered racial abuse throughout that season, shouted from the stands and even from opposing dugouts. An inning later, when Greenberg reached on a walk, he told the Dodgers’ first baseman, "Don't pay attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there. I hope that you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I've learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier."
Robinson, in turn, told The New York Times, “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”
Greenberg later explained, “Jackie had it tough, tougher than any player who ever lived. … I identified with Jackie Robinson. I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way. Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheenie and a Jew all the time."
Greenberg’s particular legend among Jewish fans stems from his decision not to play on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar – at a crucial time in the 1934 pennant race. Instead, he received a standing ovation when he walked into a Detroit synagogue.
Greenberg had played 10 days earlier on Rosh Hashanah, hitting two home runs. The next day, the words “Happy New Year” appeared in Hebrew in a Detroit newspaper headline.
And what Greenberg was to his generation, Sandy Koufax became to the next, to my generation.
In his prime, Koufax was, as the movie suggests, a Picasso, painting masterpieces from the mound, baffling batters with his fastball and a curve that seemed to drop off a table. He won individual honors and led the Los Angeles Dodgers to championships.
“Jews and Baseball” contains a rare interview with Koufax, who retired at the prime of his career because of pain in his pitching arm and has avoided the public spotlight in the decades since.
Like Greenberg before him, what made Koufax a hero in the Jewish community was his decision not to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
That these Jewish stars were proud enough of their faith to sit out on the holiest of days gave me pause as I watched the film and remembered my childhood.
My wife noticed my emotions at the mention of fathers and sons “having a catch” – as my father, a lifetime New York Yankees fan now in his 80s, did with me, and as I did with my two sons (though, they, along with their sister, favor soccer, the “other religion” in our house).
“Jews and Baseball” blends interviews with rabbis, academics, authors and collectors of memorabilia with such celebrities as film director Ron Howard and former CNN talk show host Larry King.
Besides Greenberg and Koufax, the film features such former players as Al Rosen and Shawn Green (who spoke after the screening in Atlanta and stayed around to sign autographs), along with players’ union lawyer Marvin Miller (who belongs in the Hall of Fame for his impact on the game) and current baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
For those curious, current Jewish players shown in the film include Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox, Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.