Moe Berg was born in 1902. His Jewish parents had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe during the great waves of Italians, Jews and others in the late 1800s. Berg grew up in New York, astonishingly got accepted to Princeton, which had quotas for people like Berg, and eventually went to law school at Columbia University. He studied languages at Princeton and was good enough that many say he spoke a number of them like native speakers. That talent served this country well during World War II, when Berg became a spy who eventually got to meet the leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland. Berg was prepared to assassinate Heisenberg, but held off when he realized that the man was not dangerous to us. In the film, Heisenberg’s son – also anti-Nazi – thanks Berg, for allowing himself to be born.
As for the title of the movie, The Spy Behind Home Plate, this remarkable man was also a baseball player. And no ordinary player, either. He couldn’t hit, but he was a terrific defensive catcher who played major league ball for 15 seasons. He was sometimes called the brainiest guy in baseball, and once wrote a fine article analyzing the complicated relationship between pitchers and catchers. Supposedly, Casey Stengel, legendarily bizarre himself, called Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”
All of this information, and this remarkable story comes through in Aviva Kempner’s documentary. I just wish it came through better than it does.
She’s got some tough hurdles to get over. Berg apparently had a spy-like personality all his life. There’s lots of film and photography of him, but he doesn’t talk much, and certainly not about himself. You can see him throw and catch, sit in Japan in a kimono, socialize in a tuxedo, but for the most part he doesn’t speak. Berg was known for putting index finger to lips in a hush gesture.
He died in 1972, and many of those interviewed in the movie are also long gone. That’s no terrible problem, either, because somebody had the foresight to interview Berg’s brother and sister, men he’d played with in the 20s and 30s, and even children of men he’d played with. Former CIA director William Colby died in 1996. And there are some recent interviews – Brad Ausmus, manager of the Los Angeles Angels, Bud Selig, the former commissioner of baseball. But the movie generally doesn’t mention when interviews were done, so for a time you might think, “Gee, Berg’s brother looks pretty good for a guy – wait, who would be nearly 120 years old now. You get bogged down wondering what took place when.
Director Aviva Kempner doesn’t look deeply beneath the surface of Moe Berg’s life, but you can ferret out that he lived his life as a distinct outsider. As a Jew, he was a rarity in major league baseball. Princeton students were also uncommon in the majors, and so were law students and lawyers – and most of all, spies. And he had that spy personality, or at least what I imagine might be a spy’s personality. Berg observed more than he participated. He had a film camera – this was in the 1920s and ‘30s – and he took images of his fellow players on the field and on trips.
Maybe a film about a spy should be elusive and uncertain. Berg never wrote a book about his experiences, never did an interview with NPR, never ran for office, and apparently never told all to anyone. But the film does leave you frustrated. I want to know more: where those unlabeled interviews with relatives took place and under what circumstances. Why did it take so long for them to wind up in a movie? Is the record of Moe Berg’s spy career open to the pubic or is it classified – and if that’s the case, what might be concealed. What’s the scoop about this phenomenal man?