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[Editor’s note: Havana Curveball is not yet available for individual purchase or rental. To screen the film at a school, library, synagogue, or local theater, contact Leah Lamb at leah@patchworksfilms.net.]

By Stuart M. Katzcorrespondent

Havana Curveball, a new documentary by filmmakers Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, tells the tale of a bar mitzvah boy’s innocent and initially naïve efforts to complete a community service project as part of his traditional rite of passage. 

Thirteen year-old Mica, the filmmakers’ son, lives in the San Francisco area, where he attends public school, takes piano lessons and plays sports – especially baseball. As he approaches his bar mitzvah, he begins collecting baseball equipment that he intends to send to Cuba, where his grandfather lived for two years after escaping from Austria during World War II. “Cuba saved my grandfather’s life,” he says. “And I wanted to repay a sort of debt.” 

Mica’s project is well-received, at least in his community, where donations of equipment pour in. His excitement builds as the donations arrive and he packs them up to transport to Cuba, where he understands that kids are playing baseball with sticks for bats, cardboard mitts, and balls made of rocks covered with tape. The first curveball he faces, though, is when his attempts to ship the equipment to Cuba are met with rejection by various representatives of the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS, who thwart Mica’s project with phrases like “economic sanctions” and “trade embargo.” 

“Cuba saved my grandfather’s life,” Mica says. “And I wanted to repay a sort of debt.” 

Narrated by Mica, the film chronicles his education about U.S.–Cuba diplomatic relations, creative alternatives, disappointment, and his efforts to see the project through to conclusion. In the film, Mica grows up a great deal, both literally and figuratively, as his three-year journey plays out, both in the U.S and abroad. 

Produced by Mica’s prescient filmmaker parents – who began filming before the first curveball was thrown – Havana Curveball will touch the heart of any parent who has witnessed a child coming of age without necessarily anticipating all of the obstacles on that path. Kids approaching beyond bar/bat mitzvah age and beyond will appreciate the film, too, as they see a peer navigate his way through daily life and the adventure of a lifetime.

But the film strikes a broader and deeper chord, too, as Mica gains a fuller appreciation of his grandfather’s relationship with Cuba, the effects of the trade embargo on Cuban baseball lovers, and the responsibilities accompanying Jewish adulthood. Along the way, Mica gets to see and play baseball in a new way.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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Five years after the 41-year-old Lipman Pike had made his last major league appearance, he was still making headlines (Official “Baseball” Record, August 23, 1886, National Museum of American Jewish History, 2013.54.1, Gift of Gil Bogen in memory of Rosalyn Rae Bogen)

Five years after 41-year-old Lipman Pike made his last major-league appearance, he was still making headlines (Official “Baseball” Record, August 23, 1886, National Museum of American Jewish History, 2013.54.1, Gift of Gil Bogen in memory of Rosalyn Rae Bogen)

[Editor’s note: Jewish Baseball News correspondent Stuart M. Katz recently visited Chasing Dreams, a baseball-themed exhibition currently at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. He offered to share his thoughts.]

By Stuart M. Katz, correspondent

Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American, a wonderful exhibition highlighting the deep and historic connection between American Jews and America’s pastime, is a “don’t miss” for anyone visiting or passing through Philadelphia before October 26, 2014. On display at the National Museum of American Jewish History since March, the exhibit will tour museums nationwide after it closes its Philadelphia run.

The first full scale exhibition of its kind, Chasing Dreams explores the early history of the game, including the role of Lipman Pike, an early Jewish home run king, and takes visitors up to the present day, with numerous features focusing on baseball’s growth and transformation over the past century, highlighting the contributions of Jewish players, owners, executives and broadcasters.

The exhibition also demonstrates the important roles played by immigrants and minorities of many different backgrounds, emphasizing the significance of Jackie Robinson and other barrier-breakers, like Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, and Justine Siegal, the first woman to pitch Major League batting practice.

Hank Greenberg's 'Sultan of Swat' crown, bestowed in recognition of his 1938 season by the Maryland Professional Baseball Writers Association, in 1965. Greenberg logged 58 home runs in 1938, 2 shy of Babe Ruth’s record (Courtesy of Steve Greenberg)

Hank Greenberg’s ‘Sultan of Swat’ crown, bestowed in recognition of his 1938 season by the Maryland Professional Baseball Writers Association, in 1965. Greenberg logged 58 home runs in 1938, 2 shy of Babe Ruth’s record (Courtesy of Steve Greenberg)

Chasing Dreams features over 100 original objects – many on loan from the Baseball Hall of Fame – including Hank Greenberg’s “Sultan of Swat” crown, game-worn uniforms, signed baseballs, correspondence and newspaper accounts, and even Jewish ritual objects.

Not surprisingly, the exhibition devotes special attention to Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, but it also chronicles the role of many lesser-known Jewish players via a touchscreen database, a large scale illustrated timeline, and numerous items of memorabilia. Because of the interactive nature of the exhibit, it appeals to fans of all ages, and even to visitors who are not necessarily followers of the game.

 

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Litigation Group, practicing mainly employment law, and represents employers as well as executives.

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Author: Larry Ruttman (author’s website)

Other contributors: Foreword by Bud Selig; Introduction by Marty Abramowitz

Published: 2013 (publisher’s website)

Pages: 544 (including 75 photographs)

Price: $25.67 at Amazon (discounted from $34.95)

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In American Jews and America’s Game, author Larry Ruttman shares the stories of more than 40 American Jews whose lives and careers were defined or influenced by the game of baseball.

Beginning with the 1930’s, Ruttman chronicles nine decades of the American Jewish experience through the lens of the country’s pastime. Generated primarily by interviews he conducted between 2007 and 2011, Ruttman includes stories of prominent Jewish players past and present – Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Art Shamsky, Craig Breslow and Kevin Youkilis, among others.

But the more innovative parts of the book are the first-hand stories of Jewish academics, fans, team owners, and other baseball royalty who influenced or observed the growth of the game – and the simultaneous progress of American Jewry. Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, megastar attorney Alan Dershowitz, former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, players union attorney Marvin Miller, and author and Yankees publicist Marty Appel are just a few of the voices that contribute to this fascinating volume.

What’s Jewish about it

Ruttman personally interviewed nearly every subject in this book, enabling him to pose the same questions to many of them. Are you religiously observant? Did you experience anti-Semitism in baseball? Are Jewish people particularly attracted to baseball? With a few exceptions, most of the interviewees describe a proud connection to their Jewish heritage and roots, even if aren’t religiously observant. Nearly all experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism associated with baseball. Many routinely participated in, or even created, charitable endeavors, to which Ruttman ascribes a Jewish ethos. Several of the interview subjects speak about Jackie RobinsonBranch Rickey and the indelible mark they left on the game as trailblazers who permanently broke down long-standing barriers to equality.

My take

Ruttman covers some very familiar ground in his chapters about Greenberg, Koufax and some of the other better-known players. But American Jews and America’s Game includes stories of many lesser-known players, including Jewish stars of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Some of the accounts sound like chapters from a Jewish Geography lesson, like when Ken Holtzman of the Oakland A’s skipped a start during the 1973 American League Championship Series to go to synagogue in Baltimore on Rosh Hashanah, and ended up sitting next to and sharing a meal at the home of Jerry Hoffberger, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, against whom Holtzman was pitching the next day.

Stories like this one, and learning about Elliott Maddox’s strong affinity for rugelach, were the highlights of this book for me. By including the stories of Marvin Miller, Chicago Cubs (and former Boston Red Sox) general manager Theo Epstein, Yankees president Randy Levine, and sportswriter Murray Chass, American Jews and America’s Game testifies to the widespread influence that American Jews have had on baseball, and from a multitude of personal perspectives.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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Author: Joshua L. Berkowitz (WebsiteFacebook)

Published: 2012

Pages: 288

Price: $12.07 at Amazon

Our rating: 5 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In Third Base For Life, author Josh Berkowitz recounts the extraordinary but true journey taken by a rag-tag team of third-graders from a sandlot behind a Jewish day school near Boston to the Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament.

Each year, this tournament gathers 100 of the best youth baseball teams from around the country. In this book — perfectly subtitled “A Memoir About Fathers, Sons and Baseball” — Berkowitz, a risk-averse physician, shares a very personal story about himself and his family. When son Gabe first announces that he wants to play at the Cooperstown tournament, Berkowitz dismisses the idea as a fundamentally flawed pipe dream. With urging from his wife, however, he decides to step out of character and out of his comfort zone to go for it.

Berkowitz assembles a team from the ranks of a local Jewish day school, literally making house calls to convince players and their parents to sign on for the adventure of a lifetime. Along the way to Cooperstown, Berkowitz learns a tremendous amount about himself and the life experiences that brought him to this time and place. He and his fellow coaches enjoy a remarkable opportunity to forge bonds with their sons and with each other. Myriad obstacles emerge along the way, but the team’s singular goal of playing at Cooperstown keeps them focused.

What’s Jewish about it

Third Base For Life is a uniquely Jewish story, evoking comparisons to David and Goliath. The Rashi Rams (biblical reference intended) represent the first all-Jewish team invited to participate in the Cooperstown tournament. The Rams know they are out-matched from the moment they take the field, but they compete undeterred. Their Jewishness emerges in a variety of ways. References to Shabbat observance, kashrut, and the significance of a mezuzah on a doorframe all contribute to the story. The Rams’ experience reflects strong Jewish values like honoring parents, shalom bayit (peace in the home), and kehillah (community). Berkowitz’s imaginary “conversations” with his hero, Sandy Koufax, also add a Jewish dimension to the story.

My take

I read this book very quickly and wished the experience could have lasted longer. By way of full disclosure, I knew Josh Berkowitz in college, although I haven’t seen or spoken to him in over 20 years. I had no idea how gifted a storyteller he would become. Third Base For Life draws obvious comparisons to The Bad News Bears, but I saw a lot of Field of Dreams and Moneyball in the story, too. The narrative made me laugh out loud, and it brought tears to my eyes in a few places. It is hard to identify which aspect of this story spoke to me so loudly and so clearly. It is as much a story about baseball as it is about a father’s relationship with his son, and with his own father. For me, the story hit very close to home, in part because my sons also attend a small Jewish day school, and because I can’t quite imagine rising to the challenge Berkowitz conquered. I wonder whether Third Base For Life will hold the same appeal for other readers. I am pretty sure that it will.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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Authors: Peter Ephross, Martin Abramowitz

Published: 2012

Pages: 227

Price: $35 (Amazon.com or McFarland Publishing/800-253-2187)

Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Reviewed by Stuart M. Katz for Jewish Baseball News

Overview

In Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words, authors Peter Ephross and Martin Abramowitz present oral histories of 23 of the Jewish players who were on Major League rosters between 1918 and 2005. Beginning with Bob Berman, who played for the Washington Senators in 1918, and ending with Adam Greenberg, who played one fateful game for the Chicago Cubs in 2005, the book provides an unusual window into America’s pastime.

What’s Jewish about it

Some interesting and common themes emerge in the book. Most of the players from the first half of the 20th century identify themselves as traditional Jews, say they experienced anti-Semitism (although not as virulent as the discrimination they saw African-American players suffer), and typically didn’t play on the High Holidays. Jews who played more recently were more likely to be from mixed marriages and less likely to take the High Holidays off.

Jesse Levis, who played for the Indians and the Brewers, recalls playing on Yom Kippur in 1996. He explains that because he wasn’t a superstar, he didn’t feel he had a choice, although he did fast that day. “I’m not Sandy Koufax…I’m a Major League player trying to make a living,” he says. As it happened, Levis didn’t get a hit that day — or for that matter, he says, the rest of the season. “God punished me anyway.” Former 1st-round draft pick Ron Blomberg recalls playing in a game in 1973 that lasted into the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “The game was tied with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, but we had a man on third base. I had to make the decision: quit the game for Rosh Hashanah, or get a base hit….I got a clutch base hit to win the game – the biggest hit of my career. I cherish that at-bat more than anything else in my life.”

Regardless of the era, Jewish pride resonates throughout many of the interviews. Hank Greenberg, who died in 1986, said that when a Jew hears about a gifted Jewish athlete, statesman or artist, “you take a certain pride in the fact that one of your own people (has) made good.”

My take

Although much has been written about Greenberg and Koufax, far less is known about the careers of others featured in the book, men like Sam Nahem, Cy Block and Mike Epstein. Their stories as non-superstars are no less interesting. Among the most compelling chapters are the ones devoted to Elliott Maddox and Jose J. Bautista, whose Judaism was less obvious because they are African-American and Hispanic, respectively.

The obstacles that Jewish ballplayers faced in the 20th century resembled the assimilation struggles that most American Jews faced during that era. But as these oral histories reveal, maintaining Jewish traditions remained extremely important to the players. I look forward to a future volume featuring interviews with Braun, Youkilis, Breslow, Ian Kinsler, Gabe Kapler and other more recent players. I wonder if they will describe their connection to Judaism as clearly and proudly as those who blazed the trail for them.

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Stuart M. Katz is a die-hard Yankees fan. An attorney at Cohen and Wolf in Bridgeport, Conn., he chairs the firm’s Employment & Labor Group and represents employers as well as executives.
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