Channeling my inner Voltaire, I can’t quite say that if Moe Berg hadn’t existed it might have been necessary to invent him, but I would say it sure would have been a lot of fun to try.
Moe Berg was unique in American annals, and this is one time that word is being used properly. That is, unless someone can identify another Ivy League-educated major league baseball player who was fluent in an estimated dozen languages (including Sanskrit); who dazzled audiences as a panelist on the immensely popular radio show “Information Please”; and who was recruited by William “Wild Bill” Donovan as an espionage agent during World War II. That’s before we get into his extraordinary personal eccentricity.
Trust me, please. There was never anyone exactly like Moe Berg.
He has been the subject of two significant biographies. Nicholas Dawidoff gave us “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg.” Louis Kaufman (a Globe writer at the time), Barbara Fitzgerald, and Tom Sewell gave us “Moe Berg, Athlete, Scholar . . . Spy.” And now renowned Washington-based filmmaker Aviva Kempner has produced a fine documentary titled “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” which opens Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.
Moe Berg was born in New York City on March 2 or March 3, 1902. See? Right from the start he was a man of mystery. He remained so until his death in 1972. To this day no one is quite sure what became of his remains.
But among the things we do know is that he graduated from Princeton in 1923 and broke into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers that same year. He hit .186 in 138 plate appearances and would not return to the bigs until 1926, when he resurfaced with the White Sox. He would remain employed as a backup catcher for the next 13 years, moving from the White Sox to the Indians to the Senators, back to Cleveland, and then to Boston in 1935, where he became the resident backup, playing in 148 games over five seasons until his retirement in 1939.
He was not like everyone else. For one thing, there was his linguistic ability. Given that he was the ultimate good-field, no-hit catcher, Washington teammate Dave Harris wise-cracked that “Moe Berg speaks 12 languages and can’t hit in any of them.” Indeed, his lifetime batting average was .243. He hit but six career homers and had an underwhelming career OPS of .577.
He also had a fetish for newspapers, going into a rage if someone touched one of his newspapers before he finished reading it because to him they were “live.” Only when they were fully read, and thus declared “dead,” was it permissible to touch one of his newspapers.
This is all kind of quaint and cute, but otherwise, so what? He might be worth a magazine article. Why the books? Why has Kempner turned her attention to Moe Berg?
It’s because Moe Berg was something more than a brainy backup catcher. It’s pretty well documented he served his country before and during WWII as a spy.
Kempner likes to make films about what she calls “under-known Jewish heroes.” Her previous works include “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” the story of Gertrude Berg, an actress who not only starred in both the radio and TV versions of “The Goldbergs,” but also wrote numerous scripts. Berg became enmeshed in McCarthyism when her co-star Philip Loeb was blacklisted. And Kempner produced “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Now we have “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”
“If someone had told me before ‘Hank Greenberg’ I would wind up making two movies about sports people, I would have laughed,” Kempner says.
But she did, in fact, grow up in Detroit knowing the story of Greenberg, who ranks with Sandy Koufax as one of the two greatest Jewish ballplayers.
Moe Berg is believed to have first utilized his linguistic skills in service to his country during a 1934 postseason trip to Tokyo. Japanese was one of his languages, so he circulated freely and comfortably. He is alleged to have pulled out a camera underneath his kimono and taken numerous shots of locations that might indicate the extent of Japan’s military preparedness.
But the big move came years later when Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, recruited Berg for a very important mission. The long and the short of it is that he was dispatched under the guise of being a student to see if he could determine whether the Germans were on the path to developing a nuclear weapon. This involved going to Zurich, where famed German physicist Werner Heisenberg was giving a lecture. If Berg were to reach the conclusion that the answer was in the affirmative, his instructions were to shoot Heisenberg. No, I’m not making this up. Keep in mind this was all possible because of Moe’s extraordinary linguistic capabilities.
There have been previous attempts to bring the Berg story to light as a film, and Kempner tells us in addition to her original work on the subject she has leaned heavily on 18 prior interviews done by Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein.
“Those 18 interviews really make the film,” she maintains.
But these interviews have fallen into the hands of a skilled professional. Kempner always knows exactly what she is doing.
I never met Moe Berg, but I have known people who did, and, oh boy, the stories. He spent much of his later years as a classic “America’s guest,” moving about to stay with people, whom, he correctly reasoned, were always happy to be in his company. This would include bunking with accommodating writers during the World Series. And it was well understood that Moe Berg did not pick up any checks. But everyone involved knew the rules.
Kempner became enamored of her subject. She laments that his World War II service may have cost him a chance to manage. She feels badly that his father never saw him play. She thinks his unique career has never been properly acknowledged and thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Red Sox to consider retiring his number.
The filmmaker hopes viewers will emerge from the film with two takeaways.
“One,” she says, “how much fun he was. Two, how important he was.”
As an aside, she acknowledges that Moe having been a catcher enhances the story.
“I think ‘The Shortstop Was a Spy’ just wouldn’t work,” she reasons.
Anyway, Moe Berg had to be a catcher. Shouldn’t the smartest guy on the team be running the ballgame?
Moe Berg: There was only one.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.