There were about 300 chairs in the large auditorium at the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, and empty ones were scarce a full 45 minutes before the screening began. The documentary was "Jews and Baseball – An American Love Story," and the turnout Wednesday night was testament to the truth of the title.
The film, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow and directed by Peter Miller, chronicles Jewish success in the national pastime. It presents an engrossing oral history of baseball from its inception to current times, making use of extensive and often beautiful archival footage of games, as well as contemporary interviews.
Combining the obsessive detailing that is inevitable of serious sports fandom (especially baseball fandom) with a narrative well over a century long could easily become a debilitating project. But "Jews and Baseball" negotiates the line well, moving from story to story and character to character so seamlessly that it's almost a shock to realize that the all color footage means you've reached the 1980s.
The characters in the film provide both the high and low points. There are the players who became heroes to their communities and the country at large, including Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. There are also interviews with family of ball players, various rabbis and baseball historians, all of whom fill out a textured portrait of baseball through the years.
But there are also two superfluous talking heads in Larry King and Ron Howard. Both divulge a few baseball-related anecdotes, but prove distracting from the focus of the movie, without adding anything other than star power. It seems that the narrator, Dustin Hoffman (who most of us would listen to read a grocery list for 90 minutes), lends ample big name draw, and that the film could have done without King and Howard.
In the end, the film is of course not only about Jews and baseball but about Americans and the complicated intertwining of sport, race, politics and power that has been and still is a defining factor in our national identity. In this way the film is a success, not simplifying through pure nostalgia (although there's plenty to go around) what certainly was not a simple love story. It is also seemingly inevitable that following the end credits, the audience, regardless of religious affiliation, will be struck with an almost irresistible urge to dust off the glove and go have a catch.