THE SPY BEHIND HOME PLATE is award-winning Aviva Kempner’s visually and informationally rich documentary about brainy star major league catcher Morris “Moe” Berg and his two radically different careers, first as baseball catcher of the 1920s-30s, then as a WWII spy with the O.S.S., the country’s storied new intelligence unit founded in 1942 that evolved post-war into the C.I.A. No mere home plate player, Berg’s overstuffed two chapter life was a full plate of famous personalities, accomplishments, adventures and, in true spy fashion, a few enigmas.
The doc audaciously investigates Berg's two incongruous, colorful, event-packed careers, leavening both chapters with material from considerable archival digging, contemporary interviews and detours into some big moments in wartime and espionage history. Born in 1902 to working-class immigrant Jewish parents and reared in New York and Newark, New Jersey, Berg attended Princeton University where, after declining an invitation to join one of the school’s Eating Clubs (quite exceptional at that time for a Jewish student), he triumphed there as a baseball player and graduated magna cum laude. Much to the chagrin of his working class father, baseball became Berg’s first calling after college. He became a valued baseball player for five different major league teams (Boston Red Sox, the Washington Senators, etc.) where he excelled as shortstop and especially as catcher though never impressing as hitter or runner (dad never even dropped by to see one game).
Berg’s off-season efforts reflected his scholarly, intellectually curious side: he got a law degree from Columbia University, passed the bar and even worked in a law office to please dad), learned many languages, and traveled extensively (Asia and Europe and even studying Sanskrit for a month at Paris’ Sorbonne). His long baseball stretch (over a dozen years), including all-star and teaching trips to Japan, which was already flexing its aggressive muscles, where a camera-wielding Berg got an early taste of espionage (details here are a tad murky). Because he was so well-traveled and comfortable in about ten languages, Berg, embarking on his second chapter post-Pearl Harbor was a logical recruit for the O.S.S., which assessed and trained him. He was sent to embattled Europe where his focus was investigating how much the Axis powers knew about a new gizmo called the Atomic Bomb which the U.S. was secretly developing. Tasked to learn what Germany and Italy were up to as the nuclear era encroached, Berg had at least one dangerous assignment, that of covering a lecture in Switzerland given by famous German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (for this mission, Berg had to pack a gun and cyanide pill).
Kempner produced, wrote, directed, financed and distributes the film through her Ciesla Foundation, which produces documentaries that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrates the untold stories of Jewish heroes. This mission accomplished!
Kempner dug deep and went wide for both archival and contemporary sources (many dozens), including input or footage from figures like Babe Ruth, former C.I.A. chief William Colby, journalist/commentatpr Franklin Foer, Berg biographer Nicolas Dawidoff, whose The Catcher Was a Spy biography was adapted for the 2018 IFC Films feature of the same name), Berg relatives, et al.
In spite of so much material and personalities accessed and so unwieldy a bifurcated true story to tackle, the doc is beautifully edited and organized, with clearly a design to engage, inform and entertain. Notable, though, is that titles of this Berg doc, Dawidoff’s biography and its narrative fiction film adaptation (though all, er, catchy!) somewhat mislead as his two lives (catcher/spy) never really overlapped but unfolded sequentially.
The considerable footage of Berg in both Japan and Europe (before and during the war) expand the doc into a kind of personal and period travelogue.
War history buffs get plenty of pre-war and war footage, including news material from the early years of Japanese aggression in Asia and the full-blown war in the Western theaters.
Some viewers may find that, even with so much going on in his life and in this doc, something important is left unfinished as the subject himself ultimately emerges — in true spy fashion — as something of an enigma. While a good number of colleagues and relatives weigh in, the doc’s Berg -- a snappy dresser who even participated on a radio quiz show -- is largely mute and, post-war, his once eventful life went mysteriously quiet. In 1946, he rejected this country’s prestigious Medal of Freedom honor. He never took a job, became a recluse deep in New Jersey and, like his two sibling, never married. Some commentary, even speculation regarding so ultimately elusive an outstanding character seems in order.