The Spy Behind Home Plate is Aviva Kempner’s newest documentary that tells the true true story of catcher-turned-spy Moe Berg. Moe Berg may not be Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax but his story is unique for Jewish ballplayers.
A year ago, the Paul Rudd-starring The Catcher Was A Spy premiered during Sundance. While that film does manage to tell Berg’s story in narrative form, the documentary goes the whole nine yards. While the biopic means well, nothing can substitute for a documentary driven by interviews with friends and family. Filmmaker Aviva Kempner does a solid job at telling Berg’s story. It’s an incredible story to say the least!
Growing up in Newark, N.J., Morris “Moe” Berg would defy his father and became a baseball player. Berg would play for five Major League teams over the course of his career. Sure, he would compile a lifetime .243 batting average but it’s trivial in light of what else he did. He did manage to pursue a law school education, much to the dismay of his wishes. Make no mistake that this ballplayer would become an educated man. It would mean having to choose between law school and the Chicago White Sox at the time. Then-owner Charlie Comiskey would not put up with Berg arriving late to spring training.
What sets Berg apart from other players of his era is that he would spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe and elsewhere. America wanted to defeat Germany during WWII so Berg’s war efforts are very important. They would include interviewing Italian physicists about what they know. He would also go about sabotaging the German bomb program. Everything would change in 1934. This was when Berg would fine himself playing for the Americans Baseball Team in Japan during an All-Star exhibition tour. Other teammates would include future Hall of Famers Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer, and Lou Gehrig. We get rare footage from this trip. The key mission would come in 1944 in attending German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s lecture in Zurich.
To be Jewish in college during this era isn’t quite the same as it is in today’s era. In fact, he declined to join clubs at Princeton because other Jews were not admitted. Thanks to interviews from family and friends, we get the full Berg biography. The interviews in the film come from all sorts of worlds. The film provides footage so rarely seen in addition to photographs. Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein’s prior interviews greatly benefit the documentary. Their work was for a previous project that never came to completion. They can certainly be proud to know that their work is not for a lost cause.
Baseball fans should find that The Spy Behind Home Plate is a home run.
DIRECTOR: Aviva Kempner
FEATURING: Robert Fitts, David Ignatius, Thomas Powers, Jerry Reinsdorf, Bud Selig, Nicholas Davidoff, Annette Insdorf, Brad Ausmus, John Thorn, Charles Pinck, Michael Frayn, Ira Berkow, Larry Merchant, Edward Markey, Irwin Berg