July 17, 2019

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“The Spy Behind Home Plate”

Glove, Mask, Cloak-and-Dagger

3 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

‘Get your scorecards. Get your scorecards. Can’t tell the spies from the conspirators without a scorecard.’

 

Such was just one of my thoughts after seeing filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s fascinating, incredible and rather mind blowing documentary about Morris ‘Moe’ Berg, Major League catcher, Princeton (B.A.) and Columbia (LL.D.) graduate, speaker of 12 languages who studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne and, oh, almost forgot, spy for the OSS. Psst….He was assigned to help undermine the Nazi atomic bomb program during WWII. But what drives you crazy as you partake of Ms. Kempner’s scholarly and entertaining treasure trough of the superbly assembled puzzle that was Newark, New Jersey’s, Moe Berg, is, how about all the stuff we probably don’t know about him?

 

It’s pretty nutty in its obscurity…that every schoolkid in America doesn’t know who this unsung hero was. OK…by the very nature of Moe Berg’s life outside the baselines, it was all hush, hush. But one would think as you witness the extraordinary unraveling of the many sides of the catcher who, by the way, once went 117 games behind the plate without committing an error, that his exploits would by now be legend. I mean, gee, one of the Kardashians has an affair with a pop star and we practically declare a national holiday. As I once heard an old philosopher sitting on a soda crate in front of a candy store back in the old neighborhood say, “Something is upside down.”

 

But that’s part of the awesomeness that is “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” the proof of the pudding that there is the surface world where everyone is just pretty much oblivious, doing the bread and circus thing, whereas in little known, unheralded nooks and hollers of the human experience, there are folks doing the heavy lifting for our species. I’m sure hoping some of them are hard at work right now. It’s certainly time for the brave figure on the white horse to enter stage left.

 

Moe once had tea with Einstein, and the scientist kidded that he’d teach him the theory of relativity if Moe taught him the concept and finer points of baseball. He also enjoyed a friendship with Babe Ruth when he was part of a goodwill tour to Japan, wherein our ballplayers volunteered to help teach the ins and outs of our national pastime to the college players there. But if anyone was really paying attention back then in 1934, perhaps they’d have given pause to Mr. Berg’s attendance in the Land of the Rising Sun.

 

You see, while I’ll forever be impressed by anyone who ascends to the Major Leagues, by baseball’s highly rigorous standards, Moe was just an average backstop. And when fellow Washington Senator, outfielder Dave Harris, was reminded that his teammate spoke several languages, he said, “Yeah…and he can’t hit in any of them.” Thus it only makes sense that anyone with a passing interest in both baseball and international intrigue would have seen the curiosity in Moe being picked to join the likes of future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, etc. Suffice it to note, this may have been Moe’s first assignment for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Psst, again…he came back with pictures of important Japanese installations that were later used in the Doolittle Raid.

 

Director Kempner, who has previously treated audiences to documentaries such as “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009), “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (1998) and “Partisans of Vilna” (1986), may have been, in another life, a super sleuth herself…so astute is her sense of deduction. In cracking the code of the otherwise reserved, humble and handsome repository of knowledge that was Moe Berg, she once again proves she’s a connector of the dots extraordinaire. But it’s the stuff she pulls from the chasm of the unknown that best distinguishes her documentary creds. When she plucks a previously undiscovered plum out of the perplexing pie for the world to now know, it appears neither specious nor a stretch of the imagination.

 

Kempner’s erudite rummaging has us repetitively musing, “How many other anonymous and/or unhailed heroes who have lived and died do we have to thank for the freedoms we enjoy?” It’s a bit overwhelming.

 

On a personal level, considering how things ultimately turned out for Moe, we are a bit saddened by his astonishing tale, unsure if he nonetheless found lasting happiness. He wasn’t the type to complain. Hence, in decoding the big secret that was “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” we take the occasion to sing our own silent paean to him and console ourselves with the thought that, just as in baseball, there isn’t any crying in espionage.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” not rated, is an mTuckman release directed by Aviva Kempner, starring documentary footage of Morris Berg and a variety of people in the worlds of both baseball and international intrigue. Running time: 101 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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