Hank Greenberg hits a home run in a game between the Detroit Tigers and the… (Bettmann / Corbis )
"Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story" not only lives up to its title — how could it not? — but also delivers a bit extra as well.
A warm and enthusiastic documentary directed by Peter Miller, a longtime Ken Burns associate, "Jews and Baseball" opens with a celebrated clip from 1980's "Airplane!" in which a flight attendant displays a wafer-thin leaflet titled "Famous Jewish Sports Legends."
In fact, we're told, there have been key Jewish ballplayers in every decade of baseball's existence. More than that, the sport, as Jewish Daily Forward editor Abraham Cahan foresaw, helped Jews assimilate and, that "Airplane!" clip notwithstanding, went a ways toward ending the stereotype of Jews as invariably non-athletic.
Besides well-known faces like the hard-charging Al Rosen, rookie of the year in 1950, and the scholarly Moe Berg, of whom it was said "he spoke seven languages and couldn't hit in any of them," the film explores less familiar Jewish players, especially from the game's early days.
Introduced via vintage photographs are the likes of Lipman Pike, whose $20 per week for the 1866 Philadelphia Athletics made him the first professional player, and pitcher Barney Pelty, known for his baseball card nickname "The Yiddish Curver." And seeking to compete with Babe Ruth, the New York Giants dubbed their slugger Moe Solomon "The Rabbi of Swat." It's not known if the name stuck.
Though it mentions a lot of people, "Jews and Baseball" understandably spends most of its time on two of the greatest Jewish ballplayers, heavy hitter Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy Koufax.
Greenberg, a two-time American League MVP, starred for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s and was baseball's first Jewish superstar. When a rabbi OKd his taking the field on Rosh Hashanah during a tight pennant race, the Detroit Free Press headlined, "Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play." (On the advice of his mother, he sat out Yom Kippur).
Koufax is not only a key element in the documentary's story, he agreed to a filmed interview, allowing viewers the rare opportunity to experience his smooth voice and graceful presence as he relates anecdotes about his life. It's still a pleasure to see footage of Koufax pitching in his prime, and to listen as broadcaster Vin Scully calls key moments like Koufax's 1965 perfect game.
The tradition of excellent Jewish ballplayers continues with contemporary athletes like former Dodger Shawn Green and the Red Sox's Kevin Youkilis, but it seems the age of great nicknames is over. We'll likely never have the equivalent of Subway Sam Nahem or the Yiddish Curver, and that is too bad.