'Jews and Baseball': Ron Howard's a-ha moment with Sandy Koufax
As a Jew who has been a baseball fan his entire life, I guess I'm the perfect target audience for "Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story," which opens Friday at the Music Hall Theater in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the Peter Miller-directed film hits all of what you call the Hebe Highlights in this unlikely love affair -- providing profiles of Hank Greenberg, the first slugging Jewish superstar; Moe Berg, the Jewish catcher who was a spy for the OSS; Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace who didn't pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur; and Sean Green, the graceful outfielder who was such hot stuff (he hit more than 40 homers three different years in his career) that when he was traded to the Dodgers in 1999, every rabbi in town tried to woo him to join their synagogue.
And yes, it shows a snippet from Dennis Leary's famous comic rant when he discovers that Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis, originally known as the Greek God of Walks, was actually Jewish. The film sometimes feels a little stodgy, especially because virtually all of the on-camera commentators are pretty long in the tooth, starting with Larry King, who bemoans for the 900th time the Dodgers departure from Brooklyn. On the other hand, I learned a few things I didn't know. First, that the earliest Jewish baseball players had to change their names, just like the Jewish movie stars did, because being named Cohen just wouldn't cut it with the blue-collar fans of the early 20th century. And second, that in 1954, when Jewish Cleveland Indians slugger Al Rosen -- who with his baby blue eyes and bulging biceps looked like a cross between Paul Newman and Popeye -- didn't put up the same spectacular numbers he did in his MVP season the year before, the heartless Indians general manager made him take a pay cut. The shocker? The cutthroat GM was none other than Hank Greenberg.
But wouldn't you know it, the best story in the film comes from filmmaker Ron Howard, who needless to say is about as Jewish as Arnold Schwarzenegger. As we learned from the Rosen incident, before free agency came along, ballplayers were the property of the team that had originally signed them, free to be bought, sold or traded at the team owner's will. That all changed when players association head Marvin Miller, who is also featured in the film, along with St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood, successfully challenged baseball's reserve clause, ushering in the era of free agency.
But back in the 1960s, players got paid what the owners decided they were worth. Finally, in 1966, Koufax and fellow Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale, then two of the best in the game, decided to hold out, refusing to report to spring training. They were asking for a pittance by today's standards. But the Dodgers wouldn't budge. Howard was then a 12-year-old boy in Los Angeles and was better known as Opie, costar of "The Andy Griffith Show." A rabid Dodgers fan, Howard recalls being disappointed that Koufax, his favorite pitcher, was threatening to sit out the season.
But when he got out a pad and paper one day, Howard discovered that, lo and behold, he was making more money than the sainted Sandy Koufax. "I remember feeling something was just not right in the universe if a kid actor on a TV show could out-earn Sandy," he says in the film. So the next time you hear some loudmouth on a sports talk-radio show complain about how overpaid major leaguers are today, it's worth remembering that for the first 100 or so years of the game, even the best players in the game got paid less than a child actor.
But I want to give the last word to another non-Jew: Drysdale. When Koufax went to temple instead of pitching the first game of the 1965 World Series, the starting assignment was given to Drysdale, who proceeded to get shellacked. When Dodgers Manager Walter Alston trudged out to the mound to take him out of the game, Drysdale quipped: "Right now I bet you wish I was Jewish too."
Photo: Sandy Koufax, left, with Don Drysdale after the Dodgers beat the Milwaukee Braves 3-1 to win the National League pennant in 1965. Credit: Associated Press