By Leslie C. Halpern
In addition to various books and a narrative feature film (The Catcher Was a Spy ) about the enigmatic athlete, scholar, and patriot Morris (Moe) Berg, baseball fans now have a documentary by director Aviva Kempner to add to the mix. The doc covers most of Berg’s adult life through photographs, newspaper clippings, interviews with baseball experts, authors, and historians, and archival footage of Berg, his family, and his overseas adventures.
Spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)
Berg caught and fielded during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s during his 15-year athletic career. Well-known for also earning a law degree from Columbia Law School, speaking ten languages, memorizing facts about multiple subjects, and overcoming Jewish stereotypes, he also spied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Europe to help America undermine Germany’s war efforts.
In addition to a few personal facts—including his father’s disdain for baseball and Moe’s reputation as a womanizer—the film divides its time between his professional career and his spy efforts. Berg’s time working for the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox are highlighted, along with a mention of his mediocre running skills. Berg’s exotic travels to Japan, Paris, and Switzerland (often shrouded in mystery about their purpose) included instructions to film specific locations and interview Italian physicists about their knowledge of the German bomb program.
Moe Berg: An American Hero
It’s hard to imagine a more intriguing real-life person to document. Berg was handsome, charming, athletic, brilliant, fluent, and daring. Despite the dramatic elements in his life and the enigmatic nature of the man, this documentary lacks the sizzle that Berg apparently possessed. Although it covers all the bases (so to speak), the doc fails to draw any important conclusions or delve into the psychology of the man.
We learn that parental pressure caused the respected athlete to also pursue a law degree, but there’s no insight into why Berg would repeatedly risk his life to gather information for his country. Rumors of his homosexuality (addressed in other works about him) are not addressed here; in fact, he’s portrayed as a ladies’ man.
The doc outlines the important facts about Berg and presents plenty of experts (often accompanied by their books on the subject prominently displayed next to them). Even so, there’s little dramatic flair in this film, despite the obvious dramatic flair of its subject. Yes, he clearly was an American hero, but what drove him to it?
The Spy Behind Home Plate
This documentary focuses on Moe Berg, a professional major league baseball player and spy during WWII.
- Stars: Moe Berg (archive footage), Sam Berg (archive footage), Brad Ausmus, Bruce Adams, Ira Berkow, Nicholas Dawidoff, Robert K. Fitts, Franklin Foer
- Writer-Director: Aviva Kempner
- Genre: Documentary
- Run Time: 101 minutes
- MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.