The story of Moe Berg
Award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner tells the real story of Moe Berg, major league baseball player turned spy.
By: Patrick Donovan – Author/Screenwriter
Seattle, WA (The Hollywood Times) 6/21/19 – “…Moe Berg said that he would rather be a baseball player than to become a supreme court justice. What Moe Berg was, was an American Hero…”
Aviva Kempner’s The Spy Behind Home Plate is the first feature-length documentary to tell the real story of Morris “Moe” Berg, the enigmatic and brilliant Jewish baseball player turned spy. Berg caught and fielded in the major leagues during baseball’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s. But very few people know that Berg also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), spying in Europe and playing a prominent role in America’s efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WWII.
The Spy Behind Home Plate reveals the life of this unknown Jewish hero through rare historical footage and photographs as well as revealing interviews with an All-Star roster of celebrities and other individuals from the worlds of sports, spy craft, and history. Berg may have had only a .243 batting average during his 15-year major league career, but it was the stats he collected for the OSS that made him a most valuable player to his country during World War II.
Timeline of Moe Berg’s Life:
1902 Berg is born on March 2nd in New York City.
1910 Berg family moves to Newark, New Jersey.
1923 Berg graduates from Princeton University, joins BrooklynRobins/Brooklyn Dodgers.
1924-25 Berg plays in the Minors. The Brooklyn Robin’s option him to minor-league Minneapolis Millers who in turn, in August, send him to the Toledo Mud Hens. Mike Gonzalez, files four-word report: “Good field, no hit.”
1925 Berg enrolled in Columbia Law School, skips White Sox spring training and early part of the baseball season.
1926-30 Berg plays for the Chicago White Sox as shortstop.
1927 In February, Berg is back in law school and asks Charles Comiskey for permission to join team again after classes and exams, but Comiskey says no.
1930 Graduates from Columbia Law School and passes the Bar
1931 Berg is traded to the Cleveland Indians.
1932 Berg signs with the Washington Senators.
1932 Berg travels to Japan to teach baseball fundamentals with Ted Lyons and Lefty O’Doul.
1934 Berg sets American League record by catching in 117 consecutive games without making an error, from 1931 to 1934 for Chicago, Cleveland, and Washington.
1934 Berg is picked up by Cleveland Indians.
1934 Berg joins the All Americans Baseball Team for an All-Star exhibition tour in Japan with Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer, and Lou Gehrig.
1935–39 Berg is a player for the Boston Red Sox.
1938 Berg appears on Information Please, a national radio quiz program, and becomes a national sensation.
1939 Berg’s 15th year as a major league player
1940-41 Berg becomes a coach for the Red Sox.
1941 Moe writes Atlantic Monthly article, Pitchers and Catchers.
1942 In January, Berg retires from Red Sox and takes a position with the Office of Inter-American Affairs.
1942 In February, Berg makes a speech in Japanese to the people of Japan, asking for peace.
1942 Begins “Goodwill” tour of Central and South America in August reporting to Nelson Rockefeller on the political situation.
1943 Berg becomes a member of the OSS.
1943 General Groves, head of Manhattan Project, launches an effort to locate Heisenberg and discover how far along Germans are to manufacturing a bomb. Berg joins this mission.
1943 Berg travels to Italy to extract Italian scientists.
1944 Berg attends Heisenberg’s lecture in Zurich to determine if the Nazis were building an atomic bomb.
1946 Berg declines Medal of Freedom.
1972 Berg dies on May 29th in Belleville, New Jersey. His final words are “How did the Mets do today?”
2018 Berg and the 13,000 heroic men and women of the OSS finally receive a well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal during a moving ceremony where Berg’s heroism was cited.
About the Filmmakers
Aviva Kempner, Director/Producer/Writer
Aviva Kempner has a mission in life. She makes films that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes. To her list of those heroes, she has now added Moe Berg.
Alison J. Richards, Associate Producer
Alison Richards has worked in documentary film and television production and research since 2001. She was most recently the associate producer for the special DVD package of Aviva Kempner’s historical documentary, Rosenwald, which includes over four hours of bonus features and an educational packet.
The review by Patrick Donovan
What an incredible film about a true American Hero. Morris “Moe” Berg was a son of Ukrainian immigrants who came to America to seek a better life fleeing from the oppression and poverty of the small town of Coupen, Ukraine. This is exactly why the people south of the border are coming to America; to seek a better life. But that’s a different story. This one is about a true American Patriot. Moe’s father, Bernard Berg, felt that the Judaism the religion, not the culture, was old fashioned, outdated and useless.
A third reason he came to the Ukraine was that he met and became engaged to Rose Tashka, who would become his wife. The Berg family was a poor family and Rose’s father provided with sufficient funds for Bernard go to America with the hope that he would bring Rose with him and he came in 1894 once he established himself.
The dream that Bernard had of America was not what he experience. It was just another Coupen as far as he was concerned. So he shipped out to England and found the laws in the UK prevented immigrants from taking jobs, so he went “back” the United States shoveling coal in an ocean liner.
Once back, he worked in a laundry and then made enough money to open his own laundry in the lower east side. He eventually married Rose in 1896 and studied Pharmacy at night while he and Rose continued to run the laundry. They moved to 121st Street in Harlem. Sam, Moe’s brother, was born in 1898. Ethel, his sister, was born in 1900. Moe was born in 1902.
They eventually moved to a non-Jewish neighborhood in Newark, NJ came to Newark, for, surprisingly good air, places for the kids to play and roam and live the American Dream. Bernard Berg was known for his elixir, a laxative… Moe started to play baseball and was known for his “rocket-arm” and played baseball for a church team. There wasn’t a Jewish team but a Christian church and therefore it was not right for a Jewish person to play on a Christian team. So he played under an assumed name. Runty Wolf, his brother recalls.
The problem was that if you let your son go off into baseball, you’d lose your son forever into the gentile’s world was the thought throughout the Jewish community back then. Moe had a photographic memory and he could learn things quickly!
He was a scholar and a great baseball player, at Princeton who was a star Shortstop, not the fastest afoot, but was given the nickname, “Good Field/No Hit” which is the kiss of death for a major league career. But it was his defensive skills that transcended that. He and the third baseman used to trade calls in Latin. But most everyone at Princeton knew Latin. When he was asked, “What if the baserunner knew Latin?” he replied with, “We’ll switch to Sanskrit.”
Moe’s interaction and fame at Princeton helped to overcome most of the anti-Semitism however, it didn’t stop it. He was invited to join the ‘Dining Club’ but it came with a caveat: He couldn’t use that privilege to recruit others to join. He was Jewish and they accepted him, but he was still prevented in some ways from being like the others. Moe’s presence was unusual and different not because he just a Jew, that was the benefit, he was intelligent and a great ball player which was the reason. Unfortunately, Moe turned down the offer because he felt, and this is important here, if another Jew can’t be accepted, then why should I join?
He was being recruited for both the Brooklyn Robins (now Dodgers) and the New York Giants both wanted him because there was a Jewish Population in NY and because he was a Jewish ballplayer, both teams thought that he would help the game. But Moe’s father was so opposed to Moe being a baseball player that he refused to go to any game Moe was in. Baseball, to Moe’s father, was narishkeit (Foolishness, Triviality). It was unheard of that a Jewish boy, a brain, could be a baseball player. Sam followed his father’s instructions and became a Pathologist. Ethel became a lawyer. Moe defied his parents and went his own way and became more of who he was.
What you’ll find in this film was that Moe loved to travel and consume information through newspapers as he loved reading them. Moe would eventually become a catcher which was where he settled in quite nicely and would later suit him later in life.
Moe spoke ten languages: English, French, German, Spanish, his Greek was…. perfect, Hebrew, Russian, Sanskrit and he also spoke Yiddish. He was a man apart and when he was recruited for the Senators in Washington DC, it was Perfect for him. He was invited to embassy parties to look for women. Why not. He was quite a lady’s man, charming, the girls would go gaga, but he did it with great taste and elegance. The same: White suit, black tie, black suit. He had twenty versions of the Moe Berg suit.
Moe was part of the all-star team to go to Japan and teach them the nuances of America’s greatest pastime. On the trip over, Moe Berg decides that he’s going to learn how to speak Japanese. He picked up a great deal and within three weeks, he could speak relativity well. He memorized the entire Japanese alphabet and signed his name in Japanese.
He fell in love with Asia and remained there for a month after the team left to go back to the United States. Moe was a man that didn’t mind breaking the law, pushing limits and going beyond because he simply ‘could.’ Moe grew disturbed about the world at that time, in 1938 and concerned about the future of America and what it would look like if it ever turned to fascism. How prophetic, hmm?
Moe Berg was the brainiest man about Baseball and wrote the definitive piece about the Pitcher and the Catcher. But he makes references from Montaigne to Socrates and more. He saw the Catcher as the one person who had his eyes on the entire game protecting it from the enemy and it’s a really good piece. But this was just the beginning of where Moe would go and how he would become an American hero.
The film is an incredible portrayal of how a man, the son of immigrants, who sought the American dream, producing three children where one would join the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and cross paths with Sir Ian Fleming. He worked with such people as John Ford, Marlena Dietrich, Ralph Bunch who got the Nobel Prize for establishing the United Nations, Julia Child, Arthur Goldberg who would become a Supreme Court Justice and even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who served in the OSS in the Research and Analysis Branch. Moe Berg fit right into the OSS like a glove. He brought the curiosity, the ability to think panoramically and live the life of a lonely person as well as do ‘crazy’ things.
From the Manhattan Project to tracking down Heisenberg who was the lead physicist for the Nazi’s trying to build an atomic bomb, what you’ll find is a man, a role model, athlete, scholar and patriot. We owe everything to this son of immigrants for without him America would not be what it is today and could possibly be what he foresaw in 1938: A fascist country or is what he saw actually coming true? Watch the movie and learn about Morris “Moe” Berg: The Spy Behind Home Plate.
Of note: Moe Berg looks eerily like actor Jason Issacs which is the person I immediately thought of when I saw my first image of Moe Berg.