613 strikes and you’re never out

A hard hitting examination of Jews and baseball.

Al Rosen 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Al Rosen 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you struck out, you weren’t just a bum, you were a Jewish bum,” recalls Hank Greenberg, one of the greatest Jewish baseball players in history, in a key moment from the film, Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story.
This fascinating and moving film, directed by Peter Miller, is showing in the Jerusalem Film Festival, which opens on July 8 and runs through the 17th. This year’s festival features 200 films from over 40 countries. Among its several competitions, the Wolgin Award in the Israeli Feature Film category will be one of the most closely watched, as Avishai Sivan’s The Wanderer, which competed at the Cannes Film Festival this year, goes up against new films by Nir Bergman, who made the acclaimed Broken Wings, and Dover Kosashvili, who directed A Late Wedding.
The opening night film will be La Rafle, a French drama about the Holocaust starring Jean Reno. The festival will close with the newest movie by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon), The Kids are All Right, a drama about a lesbian couple – played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening – who have a baby. In between, there will be the latest and most interesting features, documentaries, shorts and animated films from Israel and around the world. This year, The Jewish Experience Category is particularly strong, and Jews and Baseball is one of the films competing that is likely to resonate with many viewers here. And that’s because it’s a fascinating subject, and not only because there are many transplanted Americans in Israel who still love their former national pastime.
“This is the story of the Jews in America through the lens of baseball,” says Miller. “It’s about the Jewish experience in America – people who had been discriminated against finding a place in their new country.” By becoming baseball fans, Miller says, Jewish immigrants could be as American as anyone who had been born in the US.
THE FILM, which features interviews with such legends as pitcher Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg (who died in 1986) and his children, and Al Rosen, the Cleveland Indians’ All-Star third baseman, among others, looks at the history of Jewish baseball players and Jewish fans. And it also analyzes what this history means and how it has changed.
Miller immediately embraced the idea of making this film when Will Hechter, his producing partner, came to him with the idea. New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow, an expert on the subject, came on board as writer and consultant.
“The three of us embarked on this journey. From the moment we started, I realized this was going to take over my life,” says Miller. He credits Berkow as being the baseball expert on the filmmaking team, admitting, “There are fans out there who know and will always know more about this than I do.People feel very passionately about this subject.”
Miller got a surprise as he started working on the film. “A lot of my research involved talking to Jewish ballplayers and I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly articulate and bright they were,” he said.
“I knew I would be talking to people who were jocks but they turned out to be philosophers and sages in a way I didn’t expect.” Rosen, for instance, is “one of the most passionate and interesting people I’ve ever met.”
Discussing how Rosen was taunted as a child for being Jewish and later faced similar slurs in the major leagues, Miller notes, “People harassed him.
Sometimes he would fight back by hitting the ball, and other times with his fists. He epitomized the kind of assertive muscular Jewishness that was on the rise in the post-World War II era, especially after the establishment of the State of Israel. This man in his eighties connects his story to the story of anti-Semitism in America.”
ONE OF the emotional high points in the film for Miller is the moment where people recall the dustup between Jackie Robinson, the first black player in baseball, and Hank Greenberg early in Robinson’s career. Greenberg and Robinson collided as Robinson ran to first and Greenberg tried to catch the ball. Later in the game, Greenberg asked Robinson if he was all right.
“Greenberg gave him some words of encouragement, urging him not to let all the bigotry get to him. It made a huge impression on Robinson.”
Robinson later told The New York Times, “Class tells.
It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.'' This incident reflected a larger black-Jewish solidarity in the era, a time when Jews became involved in the civil-rights movement. “You have people like [Rabbi] Rebecca Alpert in the movie saying she thought of the Brooklyn Dodgers as a Jewish team because they were the first team to integrate. And she thought of Jackie Robinson as a Jewish hero.”
Miller, who now lives and works in New York, grew up in Boston and is a Red Sox fan. He is slightly sheepish over the fact that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate black players onto the team. However, he says he had the sense growing up that waiting for his team to win the World Series was akin to waiting for the Messiah.
“There was something spiritual and religious, a sense of optimism and failure. There was always the hope that this could be the year, side by side with the knowledge that this is never going to be the year. In a way it was harder finally winning in 2004 and not knowing how do deal the success,” he says.
Making documentaries is never easy, but Miller says this one went relatively quickly, since it took just two-and-a-half years to make. The director, who has produced many documentaries, some of them with the well-known documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, also directed films about Mexican Americans and Sacco and Vanzetti. “Documentary making is partly about doing creative work and mostly about figuring out how to pay for it,” he says.
Miller plans to devote the next six months to promoting this film. But he is working on other film ideas, one about Jewish refugees during World War II who were taken in by the Dominican Republic, and the other about Doc Pomus, a legendary rhythm and blues singer who hid his middle-class Jewish origins.
Looking back on the history of Jews and baseball, Miller sees an American success story. “In the beginning, the Jewish players faced barbs from the stands. Now, you can have three Jews playing in the All-Star Game and nobody even knows.”