“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” the first documentary to tell the real story of Morris “Moe” Berg, the enigmatic and brilliant Jewish baseball player turned spy, will be shown at Temple Emanu-El on Feb. 29.
Berg caught and fielded in the major leagues during baseball’s golden age, in the 1920s and 1930s. Very few people know that Berg also worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the precursor of the CIA), spying in Europe and playing a prominent role in America’s efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during World War II.
The film follows Berg, a son of Jewish immigrants, from his roots in Newark, New Jersey. An erudite scholar, he spoke several languages and earned degrees from Princeton University and Columbia Law School, and attended the Sorbonne.
As a Major League baseball catcher and fielder, Berg played on five teams – the Brooklyn Robins (which became the Dodgers), the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators and the Boston Red Sox.
In 1934, Berg joined the All Americans Baseball Team for an all-star exhibition tour in Japan with future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Charlie Gehringer and Lou Gehrig. The film features footage from the Japan trip that was taken by the players themselves – Fox, Gomez and Berg. It is enriched with interviews with family members, as well as fellow players and OSS members.
In 1944, the OSS assigned Berg to attend a lecture by German physicist Werner Heisenberg in Zurich. For the Swiss trip, Berg was given a gun and a cyanide pill and was instructed to shoot Heisenberg if he was constructing a bomb for the Nazis. He determined that Germany was not developing an atomic bomb after hearing Heisenberg’s lecture and speaking to him privately. His dangerous mission aided the Manhattan Project.
In addition to the film, the Arts Emanu-El program will feature a talk by Aviva Kempner, the director of the film. Kempner is the child of a Holocaust-survivor mother and an Army-officer father. Her career as a writer, director and producer has focused on films about unsung Jewish heroes. Kempner received a Peabody Award for “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (2000). She is the founder and executive director of The Ciesla Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces documentaries that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes.
Kempner is the founder of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, in Washington, D.C., where she lives.
Join Arts Emanu-El on Saturday, Feb. 29, at 7:30 p.m., for a screening of “The Catcher Behind Home Plate” and a talk by film director Aviva Kempner, at Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Ave., Providence. Tickets are $18 online, at www.teprov.org/form/spy, or $25 at the door. Refreshments will be served.
PAMELA HANZEL is the chair of Arts Emanu-El at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.