Movie sparks memories of curve balls and ‘having a catch’
“Jews and Baseball” opened the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, billed as the second-largest Jewish film festival in the country
February 20th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Movie sparks memories of curve balls and ‘having a catch’

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, the first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, hits a home run in the 5th inning during an April 1938 game against the Chicago White Sox.

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.

Sandy Koufax, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, scans the field before Game One of the 1963 World Series at Yankee Stadium.

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.

Al Rosen poses holding several baseball bats in 1954.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Georgia • Judaism • Movies • United States

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Name Alan

    Thought this article might interest you. Paula

    February 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  2. HeavenSent

    Ahhhhh, the days when baseball was played by true skill and love for the game. Not like the steroid monsters of today that are pumped up and out to make the greedy, greedier.

    February 21, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  3. Al Read

    Dave, I always thought Robinson was a second baseman.You say that Greenberg walked later in the game andtalked to the Dodgers first baseman ????

    February 20, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  4. Reality

    Once a week WARNING for new commentators:( An aid to those whose comments get blocked and they cannot figure out why.)

    • The moderators of this blog, Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi, have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there are words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".

    • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.

    Sum Dude routinely updates the list of forbidden words/fragments.

    Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".

    And said moderators still have not solved the chronological placement of comments once the number of comments gets above about 100. They recently have taken to dividing the comments in batches of 50 or so, for some strange reason. Maybe they did this to solve the chronology problem only to make comment reviews beyond the tedious.

    "Raison's Filter Fiber© (joking about the copyright)
    1. Here's my latest list – this seems like a good spot to set this down, as nobody's posting much on this thread.....
    bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to post that wonderful argument:
    Many, if not most are buried within other words, but I am not shooting for the perfect list, so use your imagination and add any words I have missed as a comment (no one has done this yet)
    – I found some but forgot to write them down. (shrugs).
    c-um.........as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, etc.
    sp-ic........as in disp-icable (look out Sylvester the cat!)
    ho-mo...whether ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, etc.
    t-it.........const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, etc.
    tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, (an unexpected one)
    va-g....as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant
    ar-se....yet "ass" is not filtered!
    jacka-ss...but ass is fine lol
    p-is.....as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, etc.
    o ficti-tious, repeti-tion, competi-tion.
    There are more, so do not assume that this is complete.
    okay words that you might not expect to be filtered....!!!

    Here's a word to add to the banned list: co-co-on
    whether it's c-oc, or co-on, this is ridiculous."

    February 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • JackoB

      Do you have nothing better to do than spam threads with obscenity, just because you can get away with it? Seriously.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Smite Me


      @Reality's post is not spam. CNN neglected (and refuses) to publish a list of words which set off the auto-filter - or to scrap the dang thing.

      You are the type who would come on here whining, "Waaaa, CNN is censoring me!", if one of your posts got the "Awaiting Moderation" message.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Joshua

      I appreciate your calling attention to the inconsistencies in CNN's policy for moderating blogs. As you wrote, many words are verboten. And CNN's policy forbids attacking or inciting hatred against any ethnic group. But go visit the blog for ANY article related to Israel and you will find many comments calling for death to Jews, destroying Israel, Zionists as murderers to be exterminated. It's quite disturbing.

      February 20, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  5. harry

    here we go again..another movie to gather sympathy for the jews..
    Hollywood puts one out every two years or so.....
    Why not a movie about the blacks and baseball, there have been more blacks in baseball than the jews

    holy hollywood

    February 20, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Brian

      I would hardly call "a film directed by Peter Miller, written by New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow and narrated by actor Dustin Hoffman" a "Hollywood" film. This is a small independent movie that most of America will probably never see. Heck, most of America ignores all doc-umentaries regardless of subject. What you want is a big Hollywood dramatic interpretation of the events, preferably starring the actual athletes as themselves. Perhaps "The Jackie Robinson Story" – 1950 is what you'd be looking for? Or "Jim Thorpe – All-American" – 1951. Frankly I can think of more Hollywood movies for sports heroes of minorities OTHER than Jews.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  6. JJ

    I have never told a jew this not their country nor have I ever heard anyone tell a jew this is not their country.If you are jewish this is your country too, so if anyone tells a jew this is not your country you should not listen to them . What people like that think is not important.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Brian

      JJ, I know that you are not trying to be offensive. Frankly you just come across as someone a little young and perhaps ignorant of American history. I think it's wonderful that you've never heard anyone say those things, it makes me optimistic for the future. But, until recently (and sometimes still) America has always been a country where anyone who wasn't both white and protestant was persecuted and made to feel like an outsider at some point in their lives. It happened to me. I'm only 40 and I had a cross burned in my yard when I was toddler and I had the occasional fight in school because of my religeon. My own children are 9 and 5 and they've never had any problems so far. I'm hoping we really have progressed for their sake.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  7. lucky

    I agree with pa jesseson. let's cut all the "this is my country, not yours' business and play ball!

    February 20, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  8. pa jesseson

    i had a catch with hank greenberg when I was a boy in the bronx. he was the friend of a neighbor and it turns out went to the same high school i was to go to years later. my dad stood by as we tossed the ball and when it was done and hank G walked away, my dad told me,' you don't know it, son, but you just played ball with one of the greatest jewish ball players in history." it meant a lot – why? – if you don't know, yr not paying attention to the world as it is.

    February 20, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • JJ

      Thanks pa jesseson , I honestly didn't know .I was not trying to offend anyone.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  9. JJ

    I don't get it? Is being jewish your nationality or your religion ??? It,s my understanding that these players are American??? So is there going to be a film about Baptists, Lutherans , and Catholics in baseball???

    February 20, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • pa jesseson

      jj – it's not the same thing, being a jewish american or a lutheran or baptist or catholic, etc. why not? because jews are always told, reminded, even now by sarah palin, that we live in a chirstian nation. so, by definition, jews are outsiders in america according to the "reall americans", by which I mean christian. when this corralling of america into a christian nation stops, jews can also stop, and believe me, we'd love to.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Brian

      JJ – It's wonderful that you don't get it. If the rest of this country was as accepting as you (for our entire 200 year history) than you'd be right. However, as the previous poster said, you need to study your history. Jews have been persecuted even here in America. All non-whites or non-protestants were. So, from that perspective while Lutherans don't need a movie like this I could maybe see one for Catholics.

      February 20, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  10. JewsForJesus

    Jesus is Lord. King of Kings, Lord of Lords!

    February 20, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • jerry Pritikin

      For you maybe, but not for me... however I respect your right as long as you do not think of me as less then you. I was taught to respect all God's children, and even those who do not believe in god.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • mikeybyr

      Jews for Jesus? Isnt that like vegetarians for meat?

      February 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Brian

      Haha...exactly. They have a word for "Jews" or anyone else "for Jesus". It's "Christian". Pretending that you're still a Jew when you've accepted another religeon is just a pathetic way to prothelytize to a your former people. If you are happy being a Christian that's wonderful; just have the decency to own it and stop try to tell Jews that they can be both. If you've accepted Jesus as your savior you are a Christian.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Marc J

      Everyone has a right to their personal beliefs – I respect that.

      February 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      You lie! Why do you lie?

      February 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  11. Jewishbaseball


    February 20, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  12. Baseball Maccabees

    This film looks excellent! Sports is a great way to have common interests and goals with people of all races and religions! Check out what was written at jewishbaseballnews.com

    February 20, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  13. Robert MacInnes

    As a long time baseball fan and a non-Jew, I loved this story. It is a story of people overcoming hardships. It is a story of success in America. These are the reasons for pride in my country and for the game.

    To those who sink to racist, fear based comments, crawl back in your hovel of ignorance.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • str8whtguy

      Thanks, Robert. I feel the same way. I'm dying to see this film, even though (to the best of my knowledge) I have no Jewish heritage. When I was ten years old, watching the 1980 World Series at my home in eastern Pennsylvania, the diverse racial and ethnic mix of the Phillies (Shake n' Bake McBride, Manny Trillo, Mike Schmidt, etc.), wasn't only irrelevant to me, it never even occured to me. These guys were major heroes to a 10-year-old, and continue to be 31 years later. Last summer I had the incredible joy of standing next to the 1980 World Series trophy in the Phillies offices at Citizens Bank Park. This 40-year-old felt like a kid again.

      Like the author of this article, my junior high hopes of being a professional baseball player were dashed by the fact that i just wasn't very good; I'm now a business management professor. But I still love the game for what it stands for. If you're good, you get to play. If not, go back to the minors. Race, religion, ethnicity have nothing to do with it.

      February 20, 2011 at 10:10 am |


      February 26, 2011 at 12:16 am |
  14. pseudobliss

    Dear Jesus...more of this stuff....the down trodden living the American dream! Can I find this video in the self help section at Barnes and Noble? Seems like everybody uses these tactics to demonstrate the Amerification of something. Makes for good home spun support for international and domestic political take overs...

    February 20, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • Old Fool

      Hey baby, it aint all about the Mayflower anymore. But, in some ways it is. Every culture has had its Mayflower moment. But then small minds just cant appreciate that. Go back to your video games and leave this discussion to the adults in the room.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  15. rgcnn

    People (Jews, blacks) are screaming about racism, etc. yet they constantly bringing those differences with thing like that: Jews and baseball, Black history month, ridiculous.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • jerry Pritikin

      How wrong you are... Jews are no different then most. It's nice to have something in common, yet one did not have to be black, to root for Jackie Robinson, or Itialian to cheer for Joe DiMaggio, or Polish boost for Musial. There is a difference between Pride and Prejudice... and too often, some people do not know the difference. I think it is wrong just to vote for someone because they happen to be of the same race or religion only. I have no problem with people, who are different then me, and I respect the differnce. Lighten up and enjoy the contributios to all mankind, that each and everyone of us can share together...

      February 20, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • Old Fool

      To you who would disown the importance of a Jackie Robinson or a Hank Greenberg to the history of America would disown all that we are about. This story is as important to you as it is to all have come here in the past and will come in the future. That we praise the sacrifices and victories of a Jackie or Hank makes us a country that values the content of character over the color of skin or personal beliefs. America is not simple, but you are.

      February 20, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • JH

      You don't seem to understand the word "racism"... as a country (and world) we can celebrate differences in culture, history, the arts, all of which *could* be seen as "different" than a majority, white culture here in the US. Celebrating differences has nothing at all to do with fighting against people who would use those differences to belittle you or judge you to be beneath them. Please look up the word and think before you post...

      February 20, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • Nick

      It's the 21st century. Why do we still need to focus on the divisions in society? I don't see anyone giving jews such a hard time anymore. They aren't a repressed minority anymore. They are probably one of the most powerful, if not most powerful groups of people anywhere in the Western World. You want to talk about Baseball. Fine. You want to talk about racism in general. Fine. But remember, historical revisionism isn't any better than racism.

      February 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  16. Peter Haskett

    memo to Reality: you've lost your grip on your namesake.

    February 20, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  17. Dale

    Didn't Mel Brooks have Jews in space?

    February 20, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  18. Meggie

    ... and this story ties to the "stuttering/genetics" ... how?

    February 20, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  19. Eric G.

    This is why I love baseball. Most of the things society uses to divide itself do not matter. You can play, or you can't. Greenberg had some freakishly good years. A flat-out beast.

    February 20, 2011 at 8:31 am |


      February 26, 2011 at 12:28 am |
About this blog

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.