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I have reviewed many documentaries, but few have had titles as self-explanatory as this: Jews + Baseball = Jews and Baseball.
Facts of the Case
The quintessential American sport, baseball has captured the hearts of generations of immigrants, providing them with an avenue into American culture. Jews and Baseball traces the history of the sport as seen through Jewish culture, through the war years to the modern day.
You have to love any film that opens with a joke from the movie Airplane!. Need some light reading? Here's a three-page pamphlet: "Famous Jewish Athletes." In actuality, the Jewish involvement in professional sports is more prolific than comedy might suggest—and no sport better illustrates this than the great American pastime of baseball. As film mandates go, Jews and Baseball is refreshingly forthright and straightforward: here is a film about Jews playing baseball! Except you have to say that last line in the style of Jackie Mason to make it funny.
Narrated by Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman, Jews and Baseball takes audiences through the annals of baseball history—the early inception of the game in America, the tumultuous war years, the breaking of the color barrier, and the modern era, through the eyes of Jewish athletes. The film devotes most of its screen time to the two big Jewish names in baseball, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and perhaps deservedly so—both were instrumentally important and record-breaking athletes of their day.
Jews and Baseball nurtures a strong sense of revelation and nostalgia, interviewing former players and celebrities for their own personal memories of baseball as often as corroborating a fact. Much of the film centers on the indomitable Brooklyn Dodgers and the shrine that was Ebbets Field, recalling fond memories from former players and celebrity enthusiasts. Interviewees include former player Al Rosen, sports historian Maury Allen, all-stars Shawn Green and Kevin Youklis, celebrities Ron Howard and Larry King, as well as Greenberg and Koufax.
As documentaries go, this is a straightforward affair; a love letter to baseball and all things Jewish. It makes the point early that Jews and baseball have been intertwined in America for a century, and continues to make the point for the next 90 minutes onwards. The ideal demographic for a film of this nature is obviously a Jewish baseball fan, but even one of the above would suffice. Baseball fans will delight in the interview material with Koufax, a notoriously camera-shy personality who rarely grants this kind of intimate access. The film is dutiful in its statistics, tossing up factoid after factoid about Jewish ballplayers major and minor.
Much attention is paid to the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, but less so to the years of persecution and anti-Semitic backlash against Jewish athletes, especially during the war years. Jews and Baseball is at its strongest here, capturing the historic trials and tribulations that Jewish athletes faced in the early part of the century. Greenberg refusing to play baseball on Yom Kippur, just as his team were closing on the 1934 pennant title, was a historic and transformational moment in the history of the sport—a professional athlete putting his faith above his franchise.
Jews and Baseball is your standard documentary in terms of technical quality: it gets the job done. Colors are balanced, detail is average. We get some small amount of aliasing and compression, but nothing too detrimental. Assembled from stock footage, vintage newsreels, and modern interviews, the fidelity of the final product varies from scene to scene. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo transfer offers clear dialogue, but little else in the way of action or impression. In terms of extras, we get some deleted scenes, some accompanying newsreels, and footage of Sophie Milman singing "Take Me Out To the Ball Game" (which, of course, was written by a Jew).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Limiting the scope of the film to simply the Jewish immigrant experience, Jews and Baseball misses the broader theme of baseball as a shared collective experience of all immigrants, each bringing its own shared affinity to the great American pastime. Other documentaries, like Ken Burns' Baseball, make this point much more succinctly.
What Jews and Baseball lacks in pep and excitement, it makes up for in warm nostalgic appreciation of the great American pastime.
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