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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jews and Baseball

How Immigrants Won their Ticket to America

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For many Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. between the 1880s and 1920s, baseball was their avenue into America, the badge that said, "You are accepted." The lovingly produced documentary Jews and Baseball reminds us that the badge was hard earned. The catcalls from the stands were demeaning and the institutional anti-Semitism prevailing in the U.S. through World War II might have been daunting, but as Hank Greenberg remarked in an archival interview included in the film, the insults only spurred him on. He wasn't simply playing for himself or even his team. He was hitting homers for his people and his faith.

Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, written by New York Times columnist Ira Berkow and directed by Peter Miller, Jewsand Baseball unearths much interesting material within its narrative of sports immigrant success stories. According to the film, the first professional baseball player was Jewish, Littman Emanuel Pike, so designated for receiving money in 1866 for playing what had been a purely amateur game until that time. By the early decades of the 20th century, Jews were already in the major leagues, although many Anglicized their names to mask their heritage. But by the time of Greenberg's triumphant run to the World Series in the 1930s, there were over a dozen prominent Jewish pros, including Moe Berg, reputedly an agent for the OSS (the CIA's predecessor) during World War II.

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Greenberg was on hand to cheer him on. In baseball, at least, Jews made the earliest breakthroughs in the struggle for American civil rights.

March 4-10, Times Cinema.
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