In baseball terms, Morris “Moe” Berg would best be described as a journeyman player. A New York native and son of Jewish immigrants, he played for five Major League Baseball teams between 1923 and 1939, with a lifetime batting average of just .243.
The enigmatic Berg’s career would generally not attract much attention, but his overall story is far from typical. In addition to his baseball career, Berg worked for the Office of Strategic Services – predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency – spying in Europe and playing a prominent role in America’s efforts to undermine the Nazis’ nuclear ambitions during World War II.
Berg’s life is now the subject of a new documentary, “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” by award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner. A Washington, D.C., resident, Kempner will present “The Spy Behind Home Plate” on July 7, at 4:30 p.m. at the historic Parkway Theatre.
In 1994, Berg’s life story was told in Nicholas Dawidoff’s biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy” (Vintage). It was also a 2018 film of the same name starring Paul Rudd, Jeff Daniels and Sienna Miller.
Kempner characterized the documentary as her latest effort to present non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes.
Her previous acclaimed documentaries include “Rosenwald,” about businessman/philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and his support of African-American children living in the rural South during the Jim Crow era; and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” celebrating baseball’s first major Jewish star player.
“As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve found it my mission to do this work, to help break stereotypical views of Jewish people and tell these amazing stories,” Kempner, 73, a Berlin native, said in an interview with Jmore. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years.”
Kempner conducted dozens of interviews for “The Spy Behind Home Plate.” The film also incorporates 18 interviews, conducted between 1987 and 1991 by filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein, for a never-completed project on Berg archived at Princeton University. The Ciesla Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Kempner in 1979, supported the digitizing of interviews used in “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”
In addition, the documentary offers rare historical footage and photographs, some of which are nearly a century old, including archival film of Berg, Babe Ruth and other baseball stars during an exhibition tour of Japan in 1934.
“Moe Berg’s story is one people have wanted to tell for decades,” Kempner said. “He was very secretive about his life and never wrote his autobiography. George Clooney, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando are all people who wanted to make this documentary.
“I’m just lucky to be the first one to make this full-length documentary become a reality,” she said. “Those interviews from 30 years ago add to the project, even more as none of those people, including Moe Berg’s brother, are alive today.”
Kempner said that Berg — who in 1996 was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Commack, N.Y., and whose baseball card is now on display at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. — is both an American and a Jewish-American hero.
Berg, who died in 1972 at the age of 70, grew up in Newark, N.J., spoke several languages and earned degrees from both Princeton University and Columbia Law School.
In 1943, the OSS tapped him to interview top Italian physicists to assess what they knew about Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb program. The following year, the OSS sent Berg to Zurich to attend a lecture delivered by German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Berg was given a gun and cyanide pill, and instructed to shoot Heisenberg if he appeared to be involved in the building of an atomic bomb for the Nazis. Berg determined that Germany was not developing an atomic bomb at that time, and his mission aided the advancement of the Manhattan Project.
“This was one of the most perilous times in the history of the world,” Kempner said. “If the Nazis had been able to develop a nuclear bomb, we would not be here speaking today.”
Kempner feels strongly that Berg’s story needs to be exposed to the masses and is just as relevant today as it was during the war.
“We are dealing with the nuclear threats of countries like North Korea and Iran,” Kempner said. “Anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, and the need for spies with the ability to speak multiple languages like Berg is so important. In many cases, those with the ability to speak those languages are immigrants or the children of immigrants, just like Berg.
“My hope,” she said, “is younger people come out for the film and appreciate just what Moe Berg was able to do for our country.”
For information, visit mdfilmfest.com.
Ron Snyder is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.