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Culture Documentary

Undercover catcher

Moe Berg (The Ciesla Foundation)

Documentary

Undercover catcher

The Spy Behind Home Plate tells the story of a highly talented but unhappy ballplayer

The Golden Age of Baseball conjures up black-and-white images of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Another player of the 1920s and 1930s is not most recognizable but is arguably most enigmatic.

Moe Berg played on five major league teams over 15 years, mostly as a catcher. But as the title of a recent documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, foretells, Berg wasn’t known only for his rocket arm.

Director Aviva Kempner shows how this son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants used his athletic cover to spy for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, during and after World War II. Berg was quite a catch for the OSS. He’d graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, eventually spoke 10 languages, and completed Columbia Law School while he played professional ball.

The documentary doesn’t clarify when the government recruited Berg, but in 1934, on a goodwill baseball tour to Japan, Berg surreptitiously photographed Tokyo from its tallest building with a camera he’d hidden under his kimono. The film ended up with the U.S. government.

Among his clandestine exploits, he helped Italian scientist Antonio Ferri escape to the United States in 1944, eliciting President Roosevelt’s comment, “I see that Moe is still catching very well.”

Another time, Berg listened to German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Zurich lecture, ready to shoot him then swallow a cyanide capsule himself if Heisenberg revealed he was close to creating an atom bomb. Speaking on an unrelated topic, the unsuspecting Heisenberg finished and both walked out alive.

This riveting film’s rapid-fire format of photos, clips, and nonstop narration from family members, ballplayers, and historians personifies Berg: He rarely stopped long enough for many to know him well. The personal recollections reveal only part of a complicated and talented but often unhappy man. 

Berg never married, and he embraced no religion. His dying words: “How did the Mets do today?” The documentary’s footage and storyline fascinate, but, without meaning to do so, it underscores the emptiness of living without Christ.