‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’

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By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (April 13, 2019) — Presumably, every major movie studio head honcho with a pulse would be at least somewhat interested in a fictional film that features a pro baseball player who happens to be a spy at the same time.

Well, Moe Berg’s  true life story combined those two elements.

Which is why it’s an intriguing subject matter.

Decades after his death, details about Berg’s mysterious life can now be examined up close.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” an Aviva Kempner documentary, will debut in Washington, D.C. on May 24. A week later, it’s set to open in New York, then in Los Angeles and San Francisco on June 7, with additional first runs at movie theaters in June and July, while also stopping at film festivals and overseas cinemas during the ongoing baseball season.

Even before one watches the opening five minutes of Kempner’s motion picture, a quick snippet from Berg’s Wikipedia page offers a couple revealing nuggets about his intelligence and unique lifestyle.

“Berg spoke several languages and regularly read 10 newspapers a day,” the entry stated.

The film’s trailer, courtesy of The Ciesla Foundation, was released on March 28, Opening Day of the 2019 MLB season.

So who was Moe Berg?

Born in New York in March 1902, Berg showed promise as a high school third baseman in Newark, New Jersey. He attended New York University and Princeton University. Starring at shortstop for Princeton, he attracted attention from pro baseball teams. He also distinguished himself in the Princeton classroom, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in modern languages in 1923. That same year he signed with the Brooklyn Robins (later known as the Dodgers) for $5,000.

Berg, who was Jewish, went on to play 13 seasons in the big leagues. He batted .243 with 441 hits in 663 games. He suited up for the Robins, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, wrapping up his playing career with Boston in ’39.

“Berg not only played for the last Washington Senators team to play in a World Series (1933), but he also trained with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, which was a predecessor to the CIA) not far from the D.C. team’s home, Griffith Stadium,” a press release notes.

Years before his playing career wrapped up, Berg became a vital part of U.S. intelligence efforts overseas.

A Defensive Media Network article from 2014 specifically spells out how Berg’s involvement in espionage proved to be significant at that time.

“Fluent in Japanese, he gave lectures at universities and, with a 16mm movie camera, like any other tourist, he took home movies,” DMN reported. “One day he visited St. Luke’s International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, ostensibly to pay a visit to the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Japan who had just given birth. But Berg never stopped at her room. Instead, he went to the top of the building and took a series of panoramic movies of Tokyo. After America entered World War II, Berg screened this and other movies he took during that trip for military intelligence officers planning the Doolittle Raid on Japan in 1942.”

Kempner’s film connects the dots in Berg’s one-of-a-kind biography.

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Washington Senators catcher Moe Berg’s 1933 Goudey baseball card. PUBLIC DOMAIN

“Eighty-five years ago, Moe Berg’s trip to Japan was not just about showing his catching skills in exhibition games. In the company of such All-Star players, Berg displayed his unique traits of being the brainiest man in baseball and the most secretive,” Kempner says. “On the cruise over, he charmed Babe Ruth’s daughter Julia (who passed away at age 102 in March). She describes how ‘I enjoyed dancing with him.  Almost, not quite, almost as much as I did with my father.’

“More importantly, Berg showed his diplomatic chops by improving on the Japanese he had learned on his 1932 baseball exchange trip. Berg impressed Babe Ruth by spouting his Japanese vocabulary upon arrival. And you have to admire his clever plan to visit the hospital on a bogus excuse, while risking being arrested for filming the Tokyo skyline. For Moe, the 1934 trip was akin to a training mission to becoming a spy for America.” 

After Berg died in 1972, his sister, Ethel, received his President Medal of Freedom. He had previously declined the medal.

Illuminating Kempner’s documentary are the insights of many folks with longtime ties to baseball, including former commissioner Bud Selig and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Los Angeles Angels manager Brad Ausmus and distinguished sports journalists Ira Berkow and Larry Merchant. Former ballplayers also appear on camera along with biographer Nicholas Dawidoff, authors David Ignatius and Thomas Powers, playwright Michael Frayn, film professor Dr. Annette Insdorf and OSS Society president Charles Pinck.

Kempner, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, wrote, directed and produced “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the Hall of Fame baseball slugger, which was released in 1998.

Kempner’s work ethic and persistent to her craft paid off, even though the Greenberg project took her 13 years to complete. “It was all about raising money for the rights to the archival and feature footage. That was so expensive that I had to stop and start about 20 times,” Kempner, who founded the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 1989, has been quoted as saying.

In addition to Kempner’s new documentary, Berg’s life has been studied in recent times. Dawidoff’s first book, The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” published in 1994, was adapted into a feature-length film, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” starring Paul Rudd that made its world premiere in January 2018.

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Moe Berg in an undated photo. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame

 “Moe Berg is finally achieving the recognition he so deserves as a World War II hero,” a press release concludes. “This full-length feature documentary explores the broader landscape of his immigrant Jewish upbringing, why he was called the brainiest man in baseball, and his many courageous OSS missions geared towards preventing the Nazis from developing the atomic bomb. Berg is the American hero we all need to know more about!

“…In 2018, Berg and the 13,000 heroic men and women of the OSS finally received a well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal during a moving ceremony where Berg’s heroism was cited.”

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, opened a Moe Berg exhibit last August.

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Moe Berg played 13 seasons in the major leagues. Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame

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