Who ever knew Kevin Youkilis was Jewish? Who ever even thought to ask? The ferociously goateed Boston Red Sox infielder is one of several Hebrew hammers lightly profiled in the new documentary Jews and Baseball, a sunny jaunt through the diamond that reaches from Lipman Pike, the first-ever paid baseball player, through Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax up to Shawn Green. The first major head of the players’ union was Jewish, we learn. So was the man who wrote the music for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Talking heads testify to the importance Jews have had in the sport, with archival footage mixed in. A few minutes pass praising a player, then a fade to black announces that we’re on to somebody else. Like baseball, the film wraps itself up in names, dates, stats, and highlights, losing story along the way. It celebrates Greenberg, one of his era’s greatest, for not playing on Yom Kippur during a pennant race, but neglects to say (a) whether his team won that day, (b) whether the Tigers won the pennant that year, or (c) whether Greenberg took Yom Kippur off in subsequent seasons. The film feels simultaneously micromanaged and slapdash, spouting generalities about the game while neglecting to show a full at-bat. The anecdote triumphs over the big picture consistently, and grasps at meaning feel strained, like the interviewee who tells us that Jews have baseball in their blood because the Bible starts with “In the big inning.”
So, what’s the big picture? Why should Jews care about what other Jews are playing, and why should non-Jews care about Jews at all? As the film hints by describing Greenberg pep-talking a young Jackie Robinson, the major-league Jewish triumph is a universal one. In a London Review of Books piece shortly after Obama’s 2008 election, Slavoj Zizek assessed its appeal. The point, he wrote, wasn’t just that a black man had won, but that a black man could win. It’s worth arguing that the Jews were history’s first “niggers”—a perpetually excluded, stomped-on group, almost to the point of comedy. (As the author Michael Patrick MacDonald has written, “Of course, no one considered himself a nigger. It was always something you called someone who could be considered anything less than you.”) A Jew’s rise to the top of a society intellectually, financially, and even physically was thus important symbolically not only for other Jews, but for all oppressed peoples. The success of a white-but-not-quite-right group in baseball eventually helped bring in darker-skinned people—first African-Americans (a similar trend happened in basketball), then Latinos. Without Sandy Koufax, there would be no Pedro Martinez.
As Jews have more casually entered America’s fabric, what it means to be Jewish has changed. Jews and Baseball holds up former star Shawn Green as a model for current Jewish fans, but fails to note that in 2001 Green chose not to play on Yom Kippur, nearly 70 years after Greenberg made the same decision. Historical consensus seems to be that Greenberg did a great thing by calling public attention to Judaism; by contrast, the major question both in 2001 and now surrounding Green’s choice to sit has been whether he did enough.
Do you need to do anything? It says something about the assimilated state of Judaism in America that the most prominent Jewish player in this past World Series, Texas’s Ian Kinsler, technically isn’t Jewish. It also says a lot about the way historical roles have changed that the world’s most prominent niggers now are Palestinians oppressed by the Israeli government, and that many Jews have dissociated themselves from Israel to take Palestine’s side. (What hasn’t changed, alas, is the predominance of anti-Semitism worldwide, Israel being the latest excuse.) Judaism is in one of the most comfortable positions that it’s probably ever been in right now, and so the need to identify oneself as Jewish—let alone stand for Judaism, let alone defend it—feels less urgent.
Still, the words “Yes you can” prove potent in any field, especially when coming from someone with whom you identify. Identification doesn’t have to be religious (your hero can have also come from the Philadelphia area, can have also had divorced parents), it’s just one clear model. Warshow, Farber, Sontag, Hoberman, Rosenbaum, Lopate, Scott: I wanted to be a film critic before I learned that many of the greatest have been Jewish. Now that I know, they inspire me even more.