New documentary sheds light on ‘True Renaissance Man,’ Jewish MLB player-turned-WWII spy Moe Berg.
By Shiryn Ghermezian, The Algemeiner
A new documentary set for a U.S.-nationwide release this week tells the story of Moses “Moe” Berg, a Jewish Major League baseball player who later spied for the U.S. during World War II.
In “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” viewers learn about Berg’s upbringing in Newark, N.J., as the son of Jewish immigrants, his time playing for five teams during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s, and his best work — being a wartime spy for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner of the CIA.
Born in 1902, Berg spoke eight languages, was an avid reader of newspapers, earned degrees from Princeton University and Columbia Law School, and attended the Sorbonne. He was called the brainiest man in baseball.
During his 15-season baseball career, he was part of the last Washington team to play in a World Series, in 1933, and the following year he joined the All-American Baseball Team for an All-Star exhibition tour in Japan with several future Hall of Famers, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Berg spied for the U.S government in Europe and played a large role in America’s efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WWII. He took secret pictures of Tokyo during his baseball trip there in 1934 and later covertly traveled to Switzerland to investigate how close German physicist Werner Heisenberg was to developing an atomic bomb for the Nazis. In later OSS projects, he helped sabotage Nazi efforts to make a workable bomb.
The athlete “felt a responsibility” to get involved in the wartime efforts, according to Aviva Kempner, writer, producer and director of “The Spy Behind Home Plate.” One reason was the fact that he was Jewish and of Eastern European descent, and, Kempner explained, “Moe was [also] reading about what was happening and in 1932 he had gone to Berlin, and had a bird’s eye view of where Germany was going.”
“Being so aware, being the intellectual that he was, seeing books being burned, he wasn’t going to stand by the sidelines,” she added.
Berg has been called a “true Renaissance Man” by the CIA, an “ideal role model,” an American hero and more. He has “brawn, brain and brilliance” both on the field and off, said Kempner, who is the founder and executive director of The Ciesla Foundation, a non-profit organization that produces documentaries that investigate and celebrate under-known Jewish heroes.
In 2018, Berg posthumously received a Congressional Gold Medal, along with the 13,000 men and women of the OSS. “The Spy Behind Home Plate” is the first full-length documentary on Berg.
“Putting together the pieces and mystery of his life was incredible,” Kempner said about the filming process. “And to be able to [learn] just how some people who are heroines or heroes of mine I didn’t realize were in the OSS. These children of immigrants, it was these children who knew the typology of their family’s countries, who knew the languages and customs, like Moe, who made a difference in the OSS.”
It was widely thought that Berg’s first name was Morris, but Kempner found a document that revealed he was in fact born Moses Berg on May 3, 1902, also two months later than originally thought. Berg died in 1972 and his sister supposedly gave his ashes to a rabbi to take to Israel, but it’s unclear where they were scattered.
‘A mystery from birth to death’
“Moe was a mystery from birth to death,” said Kempner. “Even with our [documentary], there’s still a lot of mystery.”
Kempner’s documentary features rare historical footage and a multitude of interviews, including ones with Berg’s teammates and relatives, former OSS members, OSS Society President Charles Pinck and U.S. Senator Edward Markey. “The Spy Behind Home Plate” also incorporated 18 interviews conducted from 1987 to 1991 by filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein for “The Best Gloveman in the League,” a film about Berg that they started but never completed.
The documentary took about three and a half years to shoot, and the day Kempner finished the film, April 29, was the 43rd anniversary of her father’s death.
“The irony is that my dad developed a love of baseball, the pride of being Jewish, the importance of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and he never saw any of my movies. So I felt it was beshert [pre-ordained],” said Kempner, whose mother was a Polish Holocaust survivor.
Relevant to current events
“The Spy Behind Home Plate” explains that Berg’s father refused to see any of his games, believing he was wasting his intellect by playing baseball.
Kempner believes the documentary is very relevant to issues going on in the world today, including efforts to hinder nuclear capabilities in North Korea and the Middle East. She concluded by saying, “I think the saddest story for me is how [Berg’s] father never came and watched him play as child, in college or the major leagues. I would hope that parents would be more forgiving and understanding if their child wants to develop both their brain and their brawn.”