The subject of Aviva Kempner’s new film may have been a spy, but Kempner is all about spilling his secrets. With reliance upon interviews and archival footage, Kempner, a Washington D.C.-based filmmaker, relates the story of Morris “Moe” Berg, a Jewish baseball player who, aside from suiting up for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox, joined the Office of Strategic Services to spy on German activities during World War II.
“The Spy Behind Home Plate” — much like Kempner’s 1986 documentary debut, “Partisans of Vilna” — features the untold story of an inspiring figure. The 101-minute work, which opens Aug. 9 at Squirrel Hill’s Manor Theatre, utilizes 44 original interviews and 18 additional exchanges conducted between 1987 and 1991 by filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein for “The Best Gloveman in the Leagues,” an unfinished film. As a collective endeavor, the project afforded Kempner greater insight into one of baseball’s more curious catchers.
Born on March 2, 1902, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Berg went to Princeton University and Columbia University School of Law. But his passion was baseball, and he played professionally during baseball’s golden era — when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Earle Combs created century-spanning memories — and participated in a 1934 all-star team that toured Japan. Over the course of 15 years, Berg batted .243 with six home runs and recorded 206 runs batted in. Years before those tallies were complete, though, MLB scout Mike González presciently said of Berg, “Good field, no hit.”
Dave Harris, Berg’s roommate on the Washington Senators, supposedly said something similar about Berg: “He can speak seven languages but he can’t hit in any of them.”
Like his at-bats, Berg’s quirks and intellectual prowess are well-recorded. At Princeton, he studied Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit. He supposedly read 10 newspapers a day.
“He would not let anyone touch his newspapers until he had read them,” noted Ralph Berger for the Society for American Baseball Research. “If anyone did touch them, Berg considered them dead and would go out and buy the papers again. Even in a snowstorm Berg would go out to buy papers if someone had touched them before he did.”
Beginning in 1939, Berg appeared on the radio quiz show “Information, Please” three times. He penned a classic piece on the psychology of pitchers and hitters for The Atlantic in 1941. During World War II, Berg clandestinely followed physicists around Europe and determined Germany’s chances of acquiring a nuclear bomb. After the war, Berg supposedly declined the Medal of Merit, the highest-ranking civilian honor of its time.
Berg never married and spent his later years living with his brother Samuel and sister Ethel. When he died, Berg’s ashes were initially buried in a New Jersey cemetery then transported to Israel, though it’s not clear where on Mt. Scopus his remains are. Berg’s baseball cards are reportedly the only ones held in the CIA Museum’s collection.
All of this has contributed to Berg’s considerable mystique.
“Little about Moe Berg adds up,” wrote Berger.
“He was a linguist who became a major league baseball player, a nuclear spy who spent most of the last two decades of his life practically homeless,” echoed Mark F. Bernstein of Princeton Alumni Weekly. Even as the subject of two biographies, “he remains an enigma.”
Nicholas Dawidoff tackled the case in his 1995 book, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.” Paul Rudd later played Berg in a 2018 feature film adaptation of Dawidoff’s work.
“We as Americans Jews are very much a part of the fabric of America, and our heroes are also part of baseball history,” said Kempner, who also made the film “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” Her documentaries, she said, always serve a “dual purpose”: to chronicle singular American lives and to inspire others. She herself has been inspired by film, especially classic war movies; “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Casablanca” are among her favorites. She is not a fan of the violence she sees in today’s films.
“I think what Hollywood has developed is this whole genre of shooting and killing to get things done. To me, it doesn’t have to be a lot of gun fighting and violence to present heroes. To me, my heroes are more intellectual to begin with,” said Kempner. Whether it is the actions demonstrated in the Vilna Ghetto, the efforts of the partisans during the Holocaust or Berg’s “careful sleuthing” to determine the locations of foreign nuclear scientists and how best to stymie their work, “I think my heroes are very different.”
Whether featuring Gertrude Berg, who won the first Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, or Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist who partnered with Booker T. Washington to build schools in segregated black communities in the early 1900s, Kempner tries to convey personal narratives in ways that resonate with an audience. With her new film, she sheds light on Moe Berg’s peculiarities. Even though his athletic career was largely belittled by baseball statisticians, Berg knew his worth.
“Maybe I’m not in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame like so many of my baseball buddies, but I’m happy I had the chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country,” he said in 1972, according to the CIA. “Perhaps I could not hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.