09 Aug movie rev Spy Behind the Plate

A new documentary about Moe Berg (right) features intellect, mystery, and adventure

Documentary, not rated, 101 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles

The story of Moe Berg is a great one. First generation son of Jewish immigrants, Princeton man, professional athlete, linguist, world traveler, radio quiz champ, playboy, an intellectual who got his law degree from Columbia University while playing major league baseball. And a spy.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who did such a fine job on another pioneering Jewish ballplayer with her 1998 documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, takes on a character who wasn’t in Greenberg’s league when it came to baseball but whose overall dimensions far outstrip the confines of the ballpark. There’s so much to tell here, and Kempner digs in with a wealth of vintage photographs and movie footage of old ballgames and turn-of-the-century cities and immigrants, plus clips from feature films that have some bearing on the subject matter and legions of talking heads, sportswriters, Berg’s contemporaries, and sundry other folks.

It can all get a little overwhelming. With too much to say and too many people saying it, and no central narrator driving the story arc, The Spy Behind Home Plate sometimes plods and lacks focus.

Still, the guy was amazing. As a Princeton shortstop, he would speak in Latin with his second baseman if there was a baserunner. In 1923, Moe signed as a shortstop with the Brooklyn Robins (as the Dodgers were known at the time) because they wanted a Jewish ballplayer to tap into that growing Brooklyn demographic. But it cut no ice with his father, who wanted his son to be a lawyer. Bernard Berg never attended Moe’s games and would spit when the subject was broached.

Berg spent most of his pro career as a catcher with the reputation of “good field, no hit,” of whom it was said, “He speaks a dozen languages and can’t hit in any of them.”

There’s so much to say about Berg — his travels, his intellectual and cultural curiosity and accomplishments, his baseball career, and much more. But it’s the spy stuff we’re dying to get to, and the meat of that comes in late. When it does, it’s gripping: He was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime forerunner of the CIA, where his most hair-raising assignment involved the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of the men behind Hitler’s atomic bomb program.

Last year’s feature film The Catcher Was a Spy (starring Paul Rudd as Berg) apparently hit the Heisenberg material harder. Here, you get a picture of the whole man. It probably helps to be a baseball fan, but there’s plenty here to intrigue anybody with a taste for intellect, mystery, and adventure.

Moe died in 1972. His last words were, “How did the Mets do today?” May he rest in peace. 

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