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Scholar, Lawyer, Catcher, Spy: The Spy Behind Home Plate

Spy 01

By Elias Savada.

I can’t take credit for creating that tagline, but it is a perfect John Le Carré allusion. It’s from author Nicholas Dawidoff (who appears in this film), who used it as a title for a 1992 article for Sports Illustrated about a most unusual renaissance man.

Aviva Kempner, D.C.’s premiere Jewish filmmaker, is back talking about one of her passions – baseball, especially high profile Jewish players in the sport. I’ve waxed poetic about Kempner’s other baseball documentary, The Life and Times and Hank Greenberg, and viewers of her latest work, The Spy Behind Home Plate, will see a similar structure to her storytelling process. Interviews, newsreels (a smattering), photographs, stock footage, and lots of repurposed material (a bit too much) that reflects what the many talking heads (over 60!) are speaking about. A good deal of what you see is actually not originally about its subject. It’s there to spin Kempner’s inebriating non-fictional tale. (Kempner’s other favorite, Dodger southpaw Sandy Koufax, was my childhood sports hero. I kept scrapbooks of news clippings on his heroics during the 1963 and 1965 World Series seasons. I’m hoping Aviva will tackle his life in a future project.)

Trading in first baseman Hank Greenberg for catcher Moe Berg (also the subject of a bland, fictionalized retelling in last year’s The Catcher Was a Spy), Kempner’s latest documentary isn’t as strong as her earlier piece, or as Rosenwald, her homage to Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, but it is just as compelling. And, boy, is it thorough. By the time the end credits roll in the 101-minute film (stay during them for a lovely story about Berg’s meeting with Albert Einstein) viewers will know just about every important detail in this fascinating man’s life.

Meticulously researched and pieced together, the film has a fascinating flow. The parade of people, some in contemporary footage, others from archival material, appear to be just as smart and informed as Moe Berg was. Without speaking in unison, I was amazed how often a particular thought about almost any aspect in Berg’s 70 years is carried from one conversation by (pick one) acquaintance/author/historian/relative of a scientist/sports figure/film director/et al. to the next. It’s eerily effective how this is edited together by Barbara Ballow.

Among the interviews unearthed here are several made decades ago by Neil Goldstein and Jerry Feldman for Princeton University, where Berg earned his undergraduate degree. These archival relics do add some nice reminiscences.

Spy 02Following a chronologic arch, the film follows Berg’s childhood as the son of poor Ukrainian immigrants, growing up in Newark, New Jersey, and having to pretend to be a gentile to play ball on a neighborhood parochial school team. Few Jews were into the sport at the time. He matriculated at New York University at age 16, but transferred a year later to Princeton, where he showcased his brawn and his brain. Armed with a photographic memory, he could learn languages in weeks and, while starring as the shortstop for the baseball team, also managed to graduate magna cum laude. Speaking of Latin, one of my favorite anecdotes (there are many dozens told in the film) concerned how he exchanged signals with the second baseman: in the dead language, to confuse base runners.

For most of the film’s opening hour, you’ll learn about Moe Berg the mediocre professional ball player (with a side trip to earning a law degree at Columbia University) and his 15-year career over five teams during the 1930s – the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, and the Boston Red Sox.

In the late 1930s he appeared on the popular radio quiz show Information Please. His dazzling answers to the trivia questions made him a national phenomenon. Over 24,000 fan letters piled into the NBC mail room.

The rest of the film lays out his career during World War II working for the Office of Strategic Services (later known as the C.I.A.). The intriguing spycraft stories march by lickety-split, including a planned assassination of Werner Heisenberg, one of Germany’s top nuclear scientists.

He loved the ladies, but never married. Shrewd and erudite, he was one smart cookie. The great and wondrous Casey Stengel once called Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”

The Spy Behind Home Plate offers a solid experience and a nice run around the many bases of Moe Berg’s life. While it doesn’t hammer another home run for Kempner, it’s a solid triple and a worthwhile salute to a great baseball star, a true American hero…and a spy.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).

Read also:

Not Playing Smart: The Catcher Was a Spy

Honor the Benefactor: Aviva Kempner’s Rosenwald

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