Aviva Kempner Releases Documentary About Jewish Catcher and Spy Moe Berg

by Alex Wehrung July 29, 2019


still_000615irwin_fnlWhen you picture a retired sports player, you probably don’t think of someone who ends up spying for his country.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” (directed by Aviva Kempner) is a documentary film that tells some of the life story of Jewish baseball player, trained lawyer and OSS spy Moe Berg. The film screened at the Ken Theater, with Aviva present to do a Q&A session with the audience during its late June shows.

As the film chronicles in its beginning, Berg grew up in Harlem, New York. As a child, he cultivated a love for baseball while playing under a pseudonym–something that the film’s featured interviewees attribute as a burgeoning moment of his spy-like talents. Berg graduated from Princeton during a time in which Ivy League school’s admissions process was affected by anti-Semitism, and received a law degree. However, he never practiced law and was reluctant to speak about that part of his life. He later went on to be a major-league pitcher, playing for both the White and Red Sox. Berg even had a successful stint on the radio quiz show “Information, Please.”

Among his other eccentric traits, Berg was also known for reading entire stacks of newspapers, as well as carrying around handheld cameras with him–an oddity for the time.

Berg was also a polyglot, a trait that caused several publications to nickname him “Professor.” He’d graduated magna cum laude in linguistics, and reputedly knew Spanish, German, Italian, Sanskrit, Latin and more; depending on the source, he spoke anywhere between seven to twelve languages. “And he can’t hit in any of them,” said Senators outfielder Dave Harris. According to the documentary, Berg learned some rudimentary Japanese while en route to Japan via boat in the 30s.

These linguistic talents made him desirable in the eyes of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS)–the United States spy organization that preceded the CIA–who sent him on various missions throughout the European theatre of World War II, mostly pertaining to gathering knowledge from the various scientists (such as Werner Heisenberg) working to develop atomic weaponry for the Axis. Allegedly, footage he gathered of Tokyo in the 30s was also used for intelligence purposes.

Just a few years ago, businessman William Levine invited filmmaker Aviva Kempner to tell Berg’s story–one that she had known about for years–after seeing her documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” another film about a Jewish baseball player; by this time, Kempner was a veteran of documentary filmmaking. Making this film fulfilled what she refers to as her modus operandi: to spread the stories of relatively unknown Jewish heroes, as well as those who fought against the Nazis. These two personal goals stem from her background; Kempner’s mother, Helen Ciesla, survived the Holocaust and her father, Harold Kempner, had been an officer in the U.S. Army.

The filmmaker finds something of a personal connection between her and Berg: like him, she trained as a lawyer, but failed the Washington D.C. bar exam (an instance she jokingly ‘thanks’ for setting her on the path to becoming a filmmaker) and reads many newspapers every day, though she doesn’t keep them piled around like Berg did.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate” mostly relies on a combination of newly filmed and archived interviews. Forty-four original interviews were conducted for the film, including the likes of Moe Berg’s cousin Irwin, “The Catcher Was a Spy” author Nicholas Dawidoff and Jochen Heisenberg, son of Werner. Some other interview subjects included members of the Society of American Baseball Researchers (or SABR), who attended the film’s screening at the organization’s headquarters. “The Spy Behind Home Plate” also makes use of some archival footage from ESPN’s now-defunct “SportsCentury” program.

Aviva thought that the most interesting interview subject she recorded for the film
was “Irwin, his cousin, [who] knew a lot about the family because he was close to Sam. Because Sam lived longer than Moe did and was his executor, his legal executor.”

The archival interview material is pulled from “The Best Gloveman in the League,”
an unfinished documentary about Berg that was filmed between 1987 and 1991. Aviva discovered the film’s existence by mere happenstance; a cinematographer on “Hank Greenburg” had worked on the unfinished film that had been directed by Neil Goldstein and Jerry Feldman. Until now, “Gloveman’s” clips had been ‘languishing’ in Princeton’s archives. Of the eighteen interviewees used from this unreleased film, the standout is Sam Berg, Moe’s brother, purely for the fact that he was the only member of Moe’s immediate family to be interviewed.

Sam Berg also served in World War II, during which time he did not see Moe for four years. After the war ended, Moe lived with Sam for 17 years, always unemployed. When asked what he did for a living, Moe would raise a finger to his lips in a ‘Shh!’ gesture. Sam eventually drew up official eviction papers on his brother, who moved in with their sister. Moe Berg lived with Ethel Berg until he died in 1972 at the age of 70, and she later accepted the Medal of Freedom on his posthumous behalf. This part of Berg’s life does not receive a focus in the film.

The film makes up for this omission by weaving together segments of other films and television shows to give the story of the war and Berg more visual context. For instance, a segment of “Fleming: The Man Who Would be Bond” is shown when the film talks about how Ian Fleming (British naval intelligence officer and the creator of James Bond) recommended Berg for spy service. In addition, footage from the 1947 film “The Beginning or the End” is used to flesh out interviewees’ discussions regarding the Manhattan Project, and how Berg was tangentially related to it via his interactions with Axis atomic scientists. Aviva attributed the use of these clips to eliminating the need to film original reenactments of the events of the war.

Aviva hopes to release a DVD of the film packed with more interview material this coming holiday season. She has already screened the film in Chicago, Detroit and Washington D.C., with more screenings to come. “It’s going to another screen in New York … it’s just all over the country. So I’m very excited. It will take the story everywhere.”


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