If someone submitted this story as a piece of fiction, no one would believe it. The notion that a popular baseball catcher had a superior intellect and wound up spying for the U.S. government is simply too outlandish…but it’s true, and that one-line summary doesn’t begin to tell the tale.
Moe Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants and loved baseball almost as much as he did studying. He held degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne. He spoke many languages—including Sanskrit—and wrote erudite essays for The Atlantic and other literary journals. He also traveled to Japan in the 1930s with an all-star team of players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and took home movies which later figured in his espionage activities. He was specifically tasked with tracking how far Germany had gotten in its efforts to create an atomic bomb while America was scrambling to do the same.
Fortunately, the task of recounting this amazing saga has fallen to the talented documentarian Aviva Kempner, whose previous efforts include The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-hoo Mrs. Goldberg, and Rosenwald. Being interested in chronicling the lives of Jewish Americans, Moe Berg must have seemed like a natural subject, but I doubt that even she realized the breadth and depth of the life she set out to detail.
Kempner also hit a mother lode when she discovered that two other filmmakers had interviewed Berg’s brother, several Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, and fellow members of the OSS (the precursor to our CIA) for a never-completed project more than twenty years ago. Most if not all of those men are gone and their eyewitness accounts help bring Moe’s story to vivid life. Kempner conducted her own interviews of ball players, scholars, journalists, and biographers and wound up with so much material that some anecdotes are told by several people in succession—one beginning the story and two others completing it.
Moe Berg has been the subject of several biographies but I confess that his story was new to me. I found it mesmerizing and can’t think of another public figure whose biography contains so many surprises and revelations.
The Spy Behind Home Plate opens today in New York and next week in Los Angeles. To learn more, go to http://spybehindhomeplate.org/