The Spy Behind Home Plate


Moe Berg: The catcher is a spy.

(2019) Documentary (The Ciesla FoundationMoe Berg, Larry Merchant, Sam Berg, Ira Berkow, David Povich, Bud Selig, Nicholas Dawidoff, Jerry Reinsdorf, Brad Ausmus, Franklin Foer, Neil Goldstein, Tommy Thomas, Irwin Berg, Ed Harkey, Ray Robinson, Denise Shames, Robert Kaplan, Joseph Cascarella, Ray Errol Fox, Jonathan Black, Stan Bernard.Directed by Aviva Kempner

 

They say truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes truth is exactly like fiction. The story of Moe Berg, a handsome Jewish baseball player during what is considered the Golden Age of baseball reads like something Ian Fleming might have written. You might well scoff but the fact is that Berg knew Fleming and the two were friendly – who knows how much of Fleming’s fiction was truth?

Morris “Moe” Berg was born to Jewish immigrants who clearly hoped for a better life for their children; his dictatorial dad wanted his brother Sam to become a doctor, which in fact he became; he wanted Moe to be a lawyer. Moe in fact did graduate from the Columbia University School of Law but preferred a career in baseball, a game he loved to play and excelled in as an undergrad at Princeton.

As a Major League ballplayer, Berg was middling; he did last 15 years in the majors as a can’t hit/good field catcher for five different teams (mainly in the American League). He started out with his only National League team the Brooklyn Robins (who later became the Dodgers) as a shortstop, but in something of a fluke he wound up being a catcher because Brooklyn needed someone behind the plate more than they did in the infield. He was nicknamed “the Professor” because of his insatiable thirst for knowledge. He spoke seven languages fluently and did extraordinarily well on the radio quiz show Information Please to the astonishment of his teammates – the audio clips from his appearance on the show are among the highlights of the film.

Berg spoke Japanese fluently which is likely the reason that he was added to an all-star team that toured Japan in 1933 and again in 1934 and it might be there that his career in espionage began. He took clandestine footage of the Tokyo skyline during a visit to a hospital there which according to journalist Paul Bernard may have been used to assist James Doolittle in his retaliatory raid following Pearl Harbor, although Kempner doesn’t bother to follow up on the claim. Then again, much about what we know about Berg is conjecture; the man was intensely private during his life and kept mainly to himself. Like both of his siblings, he never married and while he had people he was friendly with, even his closest friends admitted that he was a hard man to truly know.

When Berg was asked later in life what he did in the war, he would only smile and hold a finger to his lips, as if what he did was top secret. As a matter of fact, it was. His great assignment occurred during the Second World War when he was recruited by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) to locate Italian physicists and determine how close the Germans were to successfully detonating an atomic bomb. He was also tasked with observing their genius physicist Werner Heisenberg who was in charge of the project with orders to kill him on the spot if it appeared they were close. Most of what we know bout his service in the OSS came from secret documents released years after the war was over.

There are a ton of interviews in this movie, maybe too many; some of them appear from an aborted documentary from years ago that was partially filmed but never completed.. Some of the interviews are with people who neither knew him or were particular experts on his career. There is archival footage of his baseball career (and they do show excerpts of the home movie footage he took in Japan) as well as plenty of photographs but the movie feels padded out and extended; I get the sense that Kempner was frustrated that there isn’t more out there on a man who on the surface at least seemed far more intriguing than most documentary subjects.

There is a ton of information but we never get a sense of who Berg was as a person and that was probably how Berg wanted it. He remains today as ever an enigma, a man who fascinates even the casual viewer but is essentially not really knowable; even those closest to him admit that he was a difficult man to really get to know. That hardly makes for good documentary filmmaking but Kempner does the best she can with what she had. A pity she didn’t cut out some of the chaff here and settled for a shorter film.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is a fascinating one, almost too good to be true.
REASONS TO AVOID: An overabundance of talking head interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berg was played by Paul Rudd in a dramatization last year of one of several books written on his story.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher is a Spy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Isle of Dogs