If you lived in Montreal, and even if you didn’t, anyone who knew anything about baseball and Jews knew the Montreal Expos were owned by Charles Bronfman, and if you didn’t know the Bronfmans were Jewish you didn’t have enough native intelligence to stand upright. Back in those days people in Montreal used to talk about how Bronfman`s initials were not so subtly embedded in the team`s logo.
And so it was with a certain sense of nostalgia that I sat down to watch a new documentary titled Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, narrated by Dustin Hoffman.
The idea for the feature-length film came from Winnipeg-born, Toronto-based Producer William Hechter. “Making this film was a thrill,” said Hechter in a media release. “I was inspired from start to finish, and every day was like being at the 7th game of the world series. We had a dream team of all stars to work with, and I was very fortunate that everyone involved put so much into making this happen.”
While it is the first major documentary to tell the stories of Jews and Baseball, or perhaps a little more accurately, Jews in Baseball, nothing in this film will come as a huge revelation to anyone who knows anything about the sport. As a kid growing up in the 50s I knew Sandy Koufax was Jewish. I think, hope, that everyone did. When I mentioned I had screened the film to a friend of mine he instantly began to rhyme off names starting with the great Hank Greenberg, who occupies a lot of real estate in this film. There are also interviews from fans, writers, executives, and of course the players themselves including Al Rosen, Kevin Youkilis, Shawn Green, Norm Sherry, Ron Blomberg, Bob Feller, and Yogi Berra. Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story also includes a rare interview and appearance with the legendary Sandy Koufax (pictured at left) and I was pleased to see the Expos remembered by Charles Bronfman himself. Super fans seen on-screen include TV talk show host Larry King, and Producer-Director-Actor Ron Howard.
The key to the film comes in its subtitle, An America Love Story. The focus may be on baseball, but the film travels beyond that relatively small ballpark to explore the issues of immigration, assimilation, bigotry, heroism, the passing on of traditions, and the shattering of stereotypes. As one former major league player remembers being told, “You should be an attorney or a doctor, but not a ballplayer.” Just a small sample of the prejudice he and other Jewish athletes faced. But despite the stereotypes, and in the face of hostility from fans and even violence from opposing players, there have been Jewish players in baseball for the past 140 years.
The film achieves what it set out to do easily, but part way through the movie I had to ask myself why was this production necessary? If viewed strictly as a celebration of Jews, the scope is far too narrow. The emphasis not so much misplaced, but given more weight than it possibly deserves. What made Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story interesting for me was the archival footage of baseball the way it used to be. Afternoon games played before gigantic sold-out crowds in what used to be the temples of the sport, including Ebbets Field in Brooklyn before the Dodgers headed west. Here we get to see baseball as a woven piece of the fabric of America. The fact that Jews played the sport becomes incidental. The fact that Jews had become part of that fabric, despite everything that was placed in their way, is monumental.
Directed by Peter Miller, who has previously produced and occasionally directed documentaries or historical dramas, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story should not be approached as a previously unreleased episode in Ken Burns’ epic “nine innings” series simply titled Baseball. While this stand-alone production touches briefly on many of the changes in the sport Burns covered in detail, the singular thread promised in the title is told with passion, humour and a tangible respect for what is often called the Great American Sport.
Like all good documentaries, you come away from this film knowing more than you did when you sat down. If I may be permitted the obvious cliche, while Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story doesn’t quite hit it out of the ballpark, it achieves a terrific home run and deserves to be watched by anyone who is a fan of the game, regardless of your background.
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story opens on October 1, 2010 in Toronto at the Cineplex Sheppard Grande, and in Montreal at the Cavendish Mall.
Click here to see the trailer for Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.