The Spy Behind Home Plate
The name is Berg, James Berg.
Well, it’s Morris “Moe” Berg, a name that sounds more like one of the Three Stooges than a 007 agent.
I first became aware of this bizarre, interesting story when it appeared on the sports page of my morning paper about a baseball player who was also a spy during World War II. The book was turned into a movie (the cleverly titled The Catcher was a Spy) with Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti, Jeff Daniels, and Sienna Miller. An all-star lineup, but it struck out at the box office (and with critics). So it’s bad timing that a year later we get a documentary on Berg, a Jewish lawyer who was a good enough baseball player to turn pro and have 15 seasons in the Majors. He was originally a shortstop, and a misunderstanding got the manager to put him in at catcher, where he became one of the best defensive catchers to ever play the game. That, and his intelligence and mentoring of younger players, is what lead to his long career. He wasn’t that great a hitter, made worse by a severe injury that slowed him down.
Director Aviva Kempner does a poor job of bringing this fascinating figure to life. Some would argue that would be tough, since he died at 70, in 1972. And, it’s not like a lot of his old teammates are around to sing his praises (although we do hear from a few, including Don Dimaggio). Yet while I was watching this, it made me think of going to the museum with my family when I was a kid. My brothers and I would be interested in seeing things on display, but my stepdad would want to read everything written about it, and we got bored standing there. He’d then explain to us what he just read, which bored us even more. And nothing about Berg’s life is uninteresting. So why in the middle of the screener I was watching, did I also decide to do double-duty myself. A much safer mission than anything Berg took on. I folded laundry while jotting down notes for my review.
Berg was the son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. He was born in 1902 in Harlem, and from an early age, excelled at baseball. That got him into Princeton University, a place that wasn’t open to Jews at the time. The documentary didn’t say, but I think he was also the first Jewish guy to make it to the big leagues.
His dad emigrated as a young man, worked as a dry cleaner, finally opening his own cleaners before bringing his wife into the country. Pop was furious Berg didn’t practice law, and although his mom was always excited to see his name in the paper, he scoffed.
We were all so impressed with Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer’s winning streaks on Jeopardy! Well, Berg went on a radio quiz show at the time and each week answered every single question, usually adding additional facts. Millions of people were riveted to the radio (there were no TVs then). The commissioner of baseball told him he did more for the sport than he did because of that. Oddly enough, his only request for the show, was not to ask him legal questions. He hated the idea of not knowing the answer to one when he was an actual lawyer.
He aced his classes at Princeton, and read many books and newspapers each day. Teammates complained that if you stayed in the room with him on the road, he’d be furious if you touched his stack of newspapers (I can feel his pain). In the offseason, he’d travel. He seemed to have two reasons for this. Seducing women, and learning. In Paris, he studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne. When he was playing for the Washington Senators, because he could speak 12 languages, he was often invited to embassy parties; where he’d often sleep with women (wait…maybe this guy is a Jewish James Bond). Yet he’s one of the few womanizers I can get behind, because…he never got married. There’s talk of a woman he dated for a few years, and escort to the opera and theatre. My wife and I were both surprised to learn, neither his brother or sister, married either. That’s extremely rare, especially in those days.
There’s an interesting segment in 1934, where the U.S. sent an all-star team to Japan. Berg was thrilled to meet and hang out with Babe Ruth on the boat. Ruth was impressed to see Berg reading a book that was teaching him how to speak Japanese (which he got down by the time the ship docked). It ended up being a rather diplomatic trip, especially when tensions between the two nations wasn’t the best.
The players were given strict orders not to take pictures of anything, because of security concerns. Berg looked at this as an opportunity to play spy for the first time. Despite being 6’1” and towering over the locals, he put his hair up, wore kimono style garb, and hid a 16mm movie camera…uh…somewhere on his person. Footage he filmed later helped the government during the war.
Berg officially became an agent for the Office of Strategic Services in 1943. He was given a pistol and a cyanide capsule, and went to work.
Yet it’s weird that a guy that was apparently so charismatic with the ladies, is just a bit stoic in clips we see. And we end up just hearing talking heads speak on his brilliance.
The problem is that halfway through this movie, they go off in these other directions that were just boring. There’s talk of Ian Flemming meeting him (although James Bond was based more on Flemming, it seems). That segment goes on way too long.
It was really intriguing when he was on a dangerous mission, meeting with some Nazi scientists working on an atomic bomb. Not just because he was an American spy, but a Jewish one at that! Yet we know he’s going to escape, so you’re not on the edge of your seat the way you are watching a documentary like Man on Wire.
In the end, we just don’t learn enough about Moe Berg. Even with his brother adding some insights, since he admits that Moe didn’t share a lot with him, either.
Larry Merchant, who I love to hear talk boxing, doesn’t add much — aside from the comment that becomes the pull quote every critic will use: “You couldn’t write this stuff because nobody would believe it.”
The movie is an hour and 41 minutes long, but it felt like it was a lot longer.
Perhaps the history lessons they gave us on the Depression and Pearl Harbor, could’ve been a bit shorter.
This documentary isn’t a strike out, but it’s a ground rule double.
2 ½ stars out of 5.