New Moe Berg Documentary Languorous but Interesting

Moe Berg might be the most famous .243 hitter in Major League Baseball.

The former catcher, whose 15-year career included two separate but brief stints with the Indians, was the subject of last year’s movie, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” based on the biography of the same name, starring Paul Rudd as Berg, focusing on his World War II exploits with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.

This year, Aviva Kempner premiered the documentary, “The Spy Behind Home Plate.” The movie, which features some great video of major league baseball in the time, including some shots of League Park, is sprawling, detailed and at times languorous, but ultimately tells a story that’s almost too ridiculous to believe.

The film, playing through Thursday at the Cedar-Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights, talks about his family’s immigration to America from Ukraine. Culturally Jewish but not particularly observant, the Bergs ended up in New Jersey, where young Morris distinguished himself as both a baseball player and student. One of the recurring themes in the movie is how disappointed Berg’s father was at his son’s career path. He wanted him to be a lawyer, but even though Berg graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and became an attorney (if not a practicing one), he never attended any of his games and looked with disdain at his career path in baseball.

Berg’s career as a catcher was lengthy (15 years in the majors, mostly as a part-time player) but unspectacular. But he ended up on two barnstorming trips through Japan. Was it happenstance, as Berg loved traveling and was drawn to foreign lands and languages? Or was he even then working in service to the federal government? It was several years before Germany invaded Poland to start World War II, but his trips to Japan occurred during times of that nation’s militarization. The question isn’t fully answered by the film, and it’s unclear if that’s because of documents that might remain classified or if it’s one of those stories, as MLB historian John Thorn (one of 44 people interviewed for the movie) likes to say, is just too good to check out.

Berg and his brother – who was one of 18 people included in this documentary in footage from interviews 30 years ago for a previous Berg documentary that never came to fruition – both joined the war effort. Sam, a doctor, joined the army. Moe joined the intelligence service (an interesting but nonessential diversion in the movie talks about Wild Bill Donovan received guidance from a young British intelligence agent named Ian Fleming on forming a foreign intelligence agency), which took him to Italy, Germany and even Switzerland, telling of an assignment where he had to survey Werner Heisenberg, he of the uncertainty principle (and Walter White’s alias in “Breaking Bad”) and potentially assassinate him. The movie comes to a rather abrupt end after that, which is fitting, because Berg led a relatively itinerant life after that.

The movie comes in around an hour and 40 minutes, but seems longer, in part because of pacing and in part because it’s stuffed to the gills with interviews, and Kempner seems determined to use every one of them. But if you’re a baseball fan – particularly one who knows the broad strokes of his career and story but not the finer points – it’s worth your time.

Photo: The Sporting News Collection Archives (1931)

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