Film Review: Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story
The glow of Baseball nostalgia burns brightly in the United States; the national “love of the game” is periodically bolstered by audience-favourites, from Field of Dreams to The Natural, while its historical significance is reaffirmed in mammoth chronicles the likes of Ken Burns’s twenty-two-hour-plus PBS documentary series Baseball. Given how well represented the grand-old-game is, it’s all the more surprising just how much of Peter Miller’s documentary Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story, screening this Sunday at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, has the ring of fresh and vital information.
Jews and Baseball loosely documents Jewish ball players of varied historical stature from the game’s quiet inception to its status today as a national institution. Throughout the telling, the film periodically steps outside of the stadium, framing icons like Hank Greenberg (the first Jewish baseball superstar), for instance, against larger Jewish cultural events like the Second World War and its seismic aftermath.
These grand narratives find their detail and dramatic weight in a rich ensemble of talking heads. In spite of Miller’s transparent grab at celebrity cache (surely someone had a better Vin Scully story than Ron Howard?), it is the film’s Rabbis and Historians who provide the necessary context and the warmest cultural reminiscences. It also doesn’t hurt that a handsomely aged Sandy Koufax himself is perhaps the greatest reencounter of his own legacy.
Jews and Baseball is populated with a cavalcade of rich historical characters, so many in fact that it often feels strained to streamline them all into a broader cultural narrative.
The film hits on real strengths when training its sights on Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, the two superstar players that most captured and galvanized the Jewish collective unconscious. As Greenberg begins his rise with the Detroit Tigers in the thirties and Koufax with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the fifties, they are cast in a perfect chronology; their experiences segue naturally into highlighting how, in the intervening twenty years, baseball, Jewish baseball players, and the Jewish immigrant experience in America had all come to look radically different.
In straying to its less historically significant characters, Jews and Baseball often finds itself recounting anecdotes that feel like loose ends, awkwardly hand-stitched into a more relevant story.
Which is not to imply that those anecdotes aren’t a lot fun. Jews and Baseball is chalk-full of odds-and-ends trivia that even the most hardened anti-athlete will find engaging.
While the documentary may not success in narrative cohesion, many of the stories included here may not have otherwise found a voice. Baseball’s history, like so much American culture, is inherently linked to the Jewish experience. The game’s longstanding anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” is, after all, set to music composed by a Jewish man named Albert Von Tilzer.