Former Detroit filmmaker Aviva Kempner tells the real story of Moe Berg, a Major-Leaguer turned spy for the U.S. government.
By Michael Fox
A Major League baseball player during the 1920s and ’30s, Moe Berg had a 15-year sports career that was unremarkable. It was what he did off the field that made him a true hero.
Berg, a brilliant professional athlete who spoke seven languages, led a secret second life as a spy for the U.S. government.
Former Detroiter Aviva Kempner, who hit a home run with her 1998 documentary about another Jewish ballplayer in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, was the natural filmmaker to take on the mysteries at the heart of Berg’s minor celebrity.
The Spy Behind Home Plate is a testament to Kempner’s determination and persistence. Chock full of dozens of contemporary and archival interviews and packed with rare photos and even rarer film footage, The Spy Behind Home Plate is a definitive record of Berg’s achievements. Although it’s an effective way to impart information, the talking heads, vintage visuals and period music can’t fully evoke the shadowy stealth and deadly risks of Berg’s wartime activities.
The documentary runs June 21-28 at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township with a special preview screening at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 20, at the theater that features an introduction by local baseball historian Dr. Robert “Bob” Matthews (see sidebar) and a Q&A session with Kempner (see sidebar). The preview is hosted by Detroit’s Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation. Seating is limited; tickets can be purchased online or at the Maple Theater box office.
Kempner’s award-winning career is defined by portraits of forgotten or overlooked Jewish heroes. Greenberg and Berg are part of a gallery that includes Kempner’s 1986 debut, Partisans of Vilna, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (about the pioneering television writer, actress and producer Gertrude Berg) and Rosenwald, which recounts Sears exec and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald’s contributions to African American education.
Berg’s Mysterious Life
Morris Berg, international man of mystery, was born in New York in 1902. His father had fled a Ukrainian shtetl for the Lower East Side, where he started a laundry before buying a pharmacy and drugstore in Newark.
The family moved to New Jersey when Moe was a boy, and he grew into an excellent student and a terrific baseball player. After a year at NYU, he transferred to Princeton, where he was a star shortstop (back when the Ivy League was the top, if not only, sports conference) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
While his older brother Sam fulfilled Dad’s wishes and went to medical school, Moe signed a contract to play pro ball. He acceded to his father’s demands up to a point by attending Columbia Law School in the off seasons, earning his degree and passing the New York bar in 1929.
It was a false bargain: Moe despised the idea of being a lawyer while Bernard Berg never accepted a baseball career as a legitimate pursuit. In fact, the old man refused to go the park and see his son play.
From an athletics standpoint, Bernard wasn’t missing much. A knee injury early in Moe’s career, compounded by primitive diagnosis and treatment, severely slowed him. Over 15 years as a backup catcher, Berg notched exactly 441 hits in 663 games.
What set Moe apart were his charm, charisma and erudition. He studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne one off season and read multiple newspapers every day. When he went to Japan on a barnstorming tour with Babe Ruth and other Major League stars, he made a point of learning Japanese.
Berg carried a movie camera everywhere on that trip and, wearing a kimono and on the pretense of visiting a patient, he made his way to the roof of a tall Tokyo hospital to shoot a 360-degree panorama of the city. It’s not clear if he was already working officially (albeit surreptitiously) for the U.S. government, but his film of Tokyo’s layout was of significant help when the U.S. went to war with Japan after Pearl Harbor.
In fact, in early 1942, Berg recorded a radio segment in Japanese that was broadcast in Japan and drew on the good will he’d accumulated over two pre-war visits and a mutual love of baseball.
Berg had been sent on research missions to South America, but that was too far from the real action. It appears he found a home in 1943 in the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence branch that evolved into the CIA after the war.
His primary and crucial assignment was to ascertain how close the Germans were to having a nuclear weapon and to sway Italian scientists from the Axis to the Allies. To successfully carry off his cover story, Berg was briefed on the science and strategy of the Manhattan Project.
One biographer recounts, “The OSS had given the Manhattan Project its own spy, in effect, its own field agent to pursue questions of interest wherever he could in Europe. And that was Moe Berg.”
Kempner accords a great deal of screen time to this episode in Berg’s clandestine career as a professional spook. It’s a great story, in which the solidly built ex-catcher is assigned to attend a conference in Switzerland and determine — from the keynote speech by visiting German scientist Werner Heisenberg — if the Nazis are within reach of perfecting the bomb.
Berg carries a pistol to the symposium, with orders to use it on Heisenberg if he deems it necessary. He did not.
Kempner leaves us wanting to know more about Berg’s later years. By the weirdest of coincidences, Sam Berg headed a group of doctors sent to Nagasaki to study the effects of radiation poisoning. Incredibly, the brothers never knew about each other’s exploits.
That lone fact reveals there’s still more to know about Moe Berg’s story.