Documentarian Aviva Kempner, known for her films profiling unsung Jewish heroes throughout history, will be in Baltimore at the Parkway Theatre on July 7 to screen her newest film “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”
After a 4:30 p.m. screening of the documentary — about Jewish big league catcher Moe Berg who joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as a spy tasked with gaining intelligence about Germany’s nuclear weapon program during World War II — Kempner will participate in a Q & A session with the audience.
At 101 minutes, “The Spy” is not a short documentary. But Kempner’s direction leaves no sequence of the film — chronicling everything from Berg’s parents fleeing Europe before Berg was born to Berg’s travels after retiring from baseball and being a spy — superfluous. By weaving her own interviews with journalists, historians and athletes into archived interviews with Berg’s now-deceased brother and teammates, Kemper creates a film that is equal parts baseball, Jewish identity and politics. Though the themes are disparate, Kempner’s narrative is not filled with jarring plot twists, but careful placement of anecdotes that paint Berg as a man who was as uniquely qualified to be a spy as he was to be a big league catcher.
Born in 1902, Berg was the youngest child of Ukrainian immigrants who owned and operated a pharmacy in Newark, New Jersey. Unlike New York City, Newark did not have a sizable Jewish population, which left a young, culturally Jewish (though not religious) Berg to play baseball with boys at the neighborhood Christian school. He even adopted a non-Jewish name.
Berg continued to infiltrate unlikely institutions throughout his life, studying at Princeton—an Ivy League university founded by Presbyterians — where he was an erudite and multilingual student who also excelled on the baseball team.
“The joke is that a young Jewish boy realizes by his bar mitzvah he has a better chance of owning a baseball team than playing for one. I think Moe really contradicts that,” Kempner said in an interview. “He had the brawn to do it. But the sad part of the story is that because he also had the brains, his father was very upset that he didn’t practice law, and never saw him play.”
Baseball was Berg’s first love, but he did eventually earn a law degree from Columbia Law School before returning to baseball. Despite the accomplishment, Berg’s father never respected Berg’s career as a baseball player.
Berg was also well traveled, making two trips to Japan. Once to coach at an offseason baseball camp, and again as part of an American All-Star team competing against the Japanese All-Star team. The trip, though planned as an attempt to build good will between the U.S. and Japan, wound up being Berg’s first opportunity to provide intelligence to the U.S. government. Berg spent a day away from the team filming Tokyo’s topography atop the roof of a hospital. Berg’s films, which provided detailed images of Tokyo’s bay, were later screened for intelligence officers in the military.
Berg’s fluency in many languages, including German, led him to his claim to fame as a spy. Berg covertly attended a lecture given by Werner Heisenberg, the principal scientist in Germany’s nuclear weapon development in WWII. Though the lecture was apparently above his level of expertise, both in physics and in German language, Berg, in his charming ways, conversed with Heisenberg in German after the lecture, and reported to the U.S. that Germany was not very far along in their nuclear program.
With so many contributions to U.S. intelligence during WWII it might be easy to forget that Berg was a baseball player. While Berg played for the Washington Senators, a teammate was told that Berg spoke seven languages and he replied, “Yeah I know. And he can’t hit in any of them.”
Kempner, however, stands up for Berg’s hitting record.
“[A .243 batting average] for a 15-year career is not bad. Yesterday I was looking at Bryce Harper’s hitting record, and he’s around there too,” said Kempner. “With that kind of record these day, and a catcher who’s really smart, he’d be making millions. Not everyone is going to hit .300.”