By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Moe Berg was a brilliant man, and Aviva Kempner is an amazing filmmaker. So it’s unsurprising that Kempner’s movie about Berg’s life resulted in an excellent documentary, “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”
Berg is best known as a light-hitting, good-fielding Jewish major league catcher in the 1920s and ‘30s, an era when there weren’t many Jewish big leaguers. But he was so much more.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Berg excelled in the classroom and on the ballfield from a young age. He graduated from Princeton, where he caught the eye of both the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, who thought his heritage had the potential to draw fans from New York’s large Jewish community into their stadiums.
Berg signed with the Dodgers, where he played in 1923, before moving to the American League for the remainder of his baseball career. He spent three years with the Washington Senators from 1932 to 1934 and retired in 1939. An excellent defender and mediocre hitter, Berg had a lifetime batting average of .243, with six home runs and 206 career runs batted in.
In winters during his baseball career, Berg attended and graduated from law school, an extraordinary feat for a player then or now. He also traveled extensively in the off-season and reportedly knew 12 languages. Berg, a ladies’ man who never married, was once referred to as “”the strangest man ever to play baseball,” by legendary manager Casey Stengel, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
Berg traveled to Japan twice on goodwill missions in the 1930s – teaching himself Japanese en route on the ocean liner. He was part of a U.S. all-star team studded with future Hall-of-Famers like Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. Berg was no all-star, but by then it appears he was a spy.
Kempner’s film details an outrageous ruse Berg pulled off in Tokyo that enabled him to shoot panoramic footage of the city center from the roof of a hospital. That footage was later used by U.S. pilots in bombing raids during World War II.
Berg joined the Office of Strategic Services – precursor to today’s Central Intelligence Agency – and was assigned to the Manhattan Project, the U.S. attempt to build an atomic bomb before Germany and Japan. He slipped into Italy and Germany and located several prominent physicists who were brought to the U.S. to help with research. He also narrowly escaped death after aborting a murder/suicide mission that involved Germany’s leading physicist.
The real treasure of this film is all of the footage Kempner and film editor Barbara Ballow dug up: of Moe Berg’s brother Sam, of men who had played with Berg and audio recordings of Babe Ruth’s daughter Julia. These voices, and interviews with former baseball commissioner Bud Selig and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, give the film a rare authenticity and richness.
In the Q&A after the screening, conducted by former Mayor Allison Silberberg, who holds an MFA in playwriting, Ballow said they found footage in a number of places, including from a never-completed earlier film project on Berg.
A good documentary is like the best investigative journalism: a topic is chosen, exhaustively researched and presented clearly and fairly. “Spy” excels on all fronts.
If you love baseball or spy stories or tales about American heroes, check out “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”