August 18, 2019

The Secret Life of Jewish Athlete Moe Berg in ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’

Moe Berg. Photo courtesy of Irwin Berg

By all accounts, Moe Berg’s career in Major League Baseball from 1923 and 1939 was average at best, but this son of Jewish immigrants more than distinguished himself in his exploits off the field. 

A brilliant scholar who spoke seven languages, he served as a spy during World War II for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor to the CIA), gathering crucial intelligence vital to the war effort. His remarkable life is the subject of filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” opening June 7.

“He’s a great American hero that we don’t know much about,” Kempner told the Journal. “Hearing about men like [film producer] Harvey Weinstein and [politicians] Eliot Spitzer and Eric Schneiderman, you just cringe. At a time when Jewish men are getting a bad rap and sometimes deservedly so, I’m proud to bring a real hero to the screen.”

Kempner has championed Jewish heroes in her films throughout her career, “especially those fighting ‘isms’ — anti-Semitism, Nazism, fascism, racism, sexism,” she said. She conceived and produced the film “Partisans of Vilna” (1986) to show that Jews did fight back in World War II, and she directed documentaries about philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and radio star Gertrude Berg. A baseball fan who inherited her love of the sport from her father, she profiled Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg a decade ago. Going back to the dugout for her latest documentary was an easy decision.

Four years ago, Kempner began researching Berg, including reading Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” library materials and OSS records, including recently declassified documents. She combined archival and feature film footage with never-used interviews obtained from filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein. “They never finished their film, but for me it was a godsend,” Kempner said. She added interviews with fellow players, relatives, friends, experts and historians to the mix. 

Kempner saw last year’s feature film “The Catcher Was a Spy,” starring Paul Rudd, and called it “a Hollywood version” of events. “ ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ is the truthful story of what happened in Moe’s life,” she said.

As she chronicles in her documentary, he was born as Morris Berg in New York City in 1902, the son of Jewish immigrant parents, and grew up in Newark, N.J., where he first played baseball for a church team. He used an alias to hide his Jewish name. Later, playing shortstop at Princeton University, he encountered anti-Semitism and took a stand against it when he declined to join an elite dining club that barred Jews. 

Despite the law degree he earned from Columbia University, he disappointed his father by choosing baseball, and so Bernard Berg never attended any of his son’s games. Moe Berg played for the Brooklyn Robins (later called the Dodgers), also signing over the years with the Chicago White Sox (where he eventually shifted to catcher), Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, finishing with a .243 career batting average. His appearances on the radio show “Information Please” earned him the moniker “the brainiest man in baseball,” and his intellect and repertoire of skills would prove invaluable in the espionage sphere.

In the 1930s, under the guise of public relations and goodwill ambassadorship, Berg used trips to Japan and South America to gather information for the U.S. government. Later, the OSS recruited him for secret missions, most notably to determine whether physicist Werner Heisenberg was developing nuclear weapons for the Nazis — and assassinate him if the answer was yes. 

“When the OSS began, Britain was losing, the Nazis were winning [and] Pearl Harbor was the worst intelligence failure. If we hadn’t developed the OSS and recruited widely, we’d have been in real trouble,” Kempner said. “Moe risked a lot. We as American Jews should be very proud of the service he performed.”

Born in Berlin in 1945, Kempner is the daughter of a Polish Jewish mother whose parents and sister perished in Auschwitz and a Lithuanian father who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. He enlisted to fight the Nazis and met Kempner’s mother in Berlin after the war. “[The Holocaust] has obsessed me since I was a little kid,” the Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker said. “My mother didn’t talk about the war and I always thought, ‘What would I have done?’ ”

Kempner hopes to make a film about her family someday but first will tackle a documentary exposing “the insidious use of Native American imagery in sports — the memorabilia, names of teams,” and another short with a feminist bent. “The Senate never built women’s bathrooms because they weren’t thinking about female senators,” she said. “I’m calling it ‘Pissed Off.’ It’s my Time’s Up piece.”

A self-described “strong holiday Jew,” Kempner established the Washington Jewish Film Festival and has served on the board of the local Jewish Community Center. She believes it’s important for Jewish children to have Jewish heroes and heroines to look up to.

“Today with the rise of the right and anti-Semitism again, I think it’s really timely that we have a film that shows what happens when virulent anti-Semitism arises,” she said. “In Moe Berg, we have a Jewish hero that we can be proud of.”

Asked what Berg would think of the film, Kempner imagined he “would be happy to know that the world now knows more about what he did with the OSS during the war. I think it was also quite an accomplishment to defy his parents and succeed in a sport,” she said. “Moe wasn’t an open book. He never wrote an autobiography. So I think he’d be happy that the truth finally came out. And I’m proud that I nailed the psyche of another Jewish hero.”

“The Spy Behind Home Plate” opens June 7. A special screening with Aviva Kempner will take place on June 6 at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.