The Spy Behind Home Plate
by filmmaker Aviva Kempner
Mysterious Moe Berg’s Real Story Finally Unmasked
On September 5, 1986, I heard that Hall of Fame slugger Hank Greenberg had died in Los Angeles as I was preparing to open Partisans of Vilna, my documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis which became my first of five historic documentaries focusing on under-known Jewish heroes.
Growing up in Detroit, Pops would regale me and my brother Jonathan with colorful stories about Greenberg’s home run hitting and his importance to American Jews during the ‘30s, when domestic anti-Semitism hit close to home in Detroit with the hatred spewed by Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford.
What gave Pops the most pride was how slugger Greenberg chose the synagogue over the stadium on Yom Kippur during the Detroit Tigers’ hot 1934 pennant race. Jonathan and I heard that story so often, we came to regard his choice as part of the Kol Nidre service. I was proud to portray this brave religious stand in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.
Fast-forward to 2019 with the release of The Spy Behind Home Plate. Berg was not a player my father bragged about, as the mysterious catcher had mystified followers of the game for decades, as well as numerous screenwriters and movie makers who tried unsuccessfully to bring his daring feats to the screen.
Finally a Hollywood feature, The Catcher Was a Spy based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s riveting biography, was released last year. And in 2019, the first feature-length documentary on mysterious Moe’s roots and life hits the movie theatres almost fifty years after his death.
When William Levine, a very generous devotee of Berg’s legacy, offered to support a documentary on the erudite Princeton grad and clever OSS spy of nuclear espionage I could not resist accepting the offer. After all Berg’s story combines the elements of a catcher’s ability to master the game and then to translate those skills and his command of numerous languages to engage in sleuthing to prevent Nazi tyranny from obtaining an atomic bomb.
One could not make up all the feats Berg pulled off in his life as a spy, nor can we say with certainty when he first started spying. He led a glamourous life far from the tranquility of Newark and being a son of immigrant Jewish parents. Berg danced with Babe Ruth’s daughter on the way to Japan where he clandestinely shot footage of Tokyo’s skyline which possibly provided intelligence for America’s bombing attacks. And he rescued Italian scientists from being forced by the Nazis to do nefarious research and spied on the one German physicist who had the capability to make the nuclear bomb.
On a personal note, I finished Berg’s incredible tale on the forty-third anniversary of my Pop’s death. But unlike Berg’s father, who purposefully never saw his son play baseball as a youth, in college or his fifteen years in the major leagues, my father would have been in the theatre watching my film on opening day and many more times.
I hope you can honor the memory of Chaim Kempner’s and Moe Berg’s World War II service by coming to see The Spy Behind Home Plate, because America’s favorite pastime never had a more brilliant, secretive, and braver player.