Aviva Kempner’s “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” opening June 28 at Chez Artiste, is the first feature-length documentary to tell the real story of Morris “Moe” Berg, the enigmatic and brilliant Jewish baseball player turned spy.
Berg caught and fielded in the major leagues during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s. But very few people know that Berg also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), spying in Europe and playing a prominent role in America’s efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WW II.
“The Spy Behind Home Plate” reveals the life of this unknown Jewish hero through rare historical footage and photographs as well as revealing contemporary and past interviews with celebrities and other individuals from the worlds of sports, spycraft, and WW II history.
Among the contemporary interviewees are authors Robert Fitts, David Ignatius, and Thomas Powers, baseball executives Jerry Reinsdorf and Bud Selig, biographer Nicholas Davidoff, film professor Annette Insdorf, Los Angeles Angels manager Brad Ausmus, MLB historian John Thorn, OSS Society president Charles Pinck, playwright Michael Frayn, sports columnist Ira Berkow, sports commentator Larry Merchant and US. Senator Edward Markey.
The film follows Berg, who was the son of Jewish immigrants, from his roots growing up in Newark, NJ. An erudite scholar, he spoke a multitude of languages, earned degrees from Princeton University, Columbia Law School, and attended the Sorbonne.
As a major league catcher and fielder, he played on five different teams during baseball’s Golden Age — for the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox. In 1934, Berg joined the All Americans Baseball Team for an all-star exhibition tour in Japan with Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer and Lou Gehrig. The film features footage from the Japan trip taken by the players themselves — Foxx, Gomez, and Berg.
Berg may have had only a .243 batting average during his 15-year major league career, but The Spy Behind Home Plate shows that it was the stats he collected for the OSS that made him a most valuable player to his country during WW II.
Berg was selected by the OSS for a mission to interview top Italian physicists to assess their knowledge of the German bomb program. He was also involved in missions to undermine the German bomb program.
In 1944, the OSS assigned him to attend a lecture by German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Zurich. For the Swiss trip, Berg was given a gun and a cyanide pill and was instructed to shoot Heisenberg if he was constructing a bomb for the Nazis.
He determined that Germany was not developing an atomic bomb after hearing Heisenberg give a lecture and speaking to him privately. His dangerous mission aided the advancement of the Manhattan Project.
“The Spy Behind Home Plate” was enriched by incorporating 18 interviews conducted from 1987 to 1991 by filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein for “The Best Gloveman in the League,” which was never completed.
Their archival interviews include: Moe’s brother, Dr. Sam Berg; Berg’s fellow players center fielder Dom DiMaggio, and pitchers Elden Auker and Joseph Cascarella; fellow OSS members Horace Calvert, William Colby, and John Lansdale.
Two interviews with former OSS members, Earl Brodie and Edwin Putzell, conducted by ESPN for its SportsCentury-Moe Berg were also included.