Moe Berg

It’s been said that if Moe Berg weren’t a real-life Jewish hero, he would have been invented in a spy thriller. From pick-up games in the streets of Newark to the Major League during baseball’s Golden Age, Moe Berg was the brainy, multilingual Princeton-educated catcher who played a total of 15 seasons with for four teams. A fielder and batter with unremarkable stats, amidst a circle of friends that included Babe Ruth, Chico Marx and Nelson Rockefeller, Berg used his celebrity as cover-up for a secret life in espionage for the U.S. during WWII.

Through historical footage and photographs, as well as interviews with an all-star roster of celebrities and other individuals from the world of sports, Berg’s story unfolds in a first-time feature length film by award winning writer, producer and filmmaker Aviva Kemper.

The Spy Behind Home Plate runs June 21-28 at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Hills with a special preview screening Thursday, June 20, at 7 pm. The preview event features an introduction by baseball historian, Bob Matthews, and a Q&A with Aviva Kemper, hosted by the JCC of Metro Detroit and the Jewish Federation. Seating is limited; tickets can be purchase online or at the Maple Theater box office.   

What made Berg run?

Was it purely for the love of baseball or did Moe Berg stay in the game with a different motive? We’ll never know.  A quirky, shadowy figure throughout his career, Berg played with the Chicago White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators, noted for few accomplishments. On the bench more than he played, never did he advance beyond the position of backup catcher and substitute shortstop. Curiously, in 1934, five years before he retired from baseball, Berg was chosen to join the traveling American All-Star baseball team on a trip to Japan. Fellow teammates and baseball fans wondered why a player with a lifetime batting average of only .243 was chosen for the All-Star team with the likes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

For more insight into the fascinating life and times of Moe Berg, one might tap the wealth of knowledge of Dr. Robert (Bob) Matthews – donor and curator of the Matthews Sports Exhibit: Jewish Heroes & Other Legends at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit

As Bob observes, “The focus on Jewish baseball stars always has been on Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. In my book, Moe Berg is the greatest ball player most people have never heard of. I think he should be called our newly discovered hero of Jewish baseball. Not for his prowess behind the plate (though he was a pretty good catcher), and not for his academic brilliance (though he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton, attended Columbia Law School, understood Nuclear Physics and was considered a savant). Moe Berg is best known (and only posthumously recognized) for his service as an officer of the O.S.S., the forerunner of the CIA. In life, few knew the ‘real’ Moe – a frontline spy, a covert hero of World War II and a true American patriot.”

Baseball was his cover. A linguist by second nature and fluent in many languages, Moe once inspired a teammate’s observation, “He can speak seven languages, but can’t hit in any of them.”

Moe’s multiple language skills would prove to be an invaluable asset. Under the cover of his barnstorming trip to Japan in 1934, accompanying All-Star Major Leaguers, Berg visited an ambassador’s daughter in the maternity ward of St. Lukes Hospital, the tallest building in Tokyo. In disguise as a Japanese visitor, he bluffed his way up to the rooftop and, from underneath his kimono, pulled out a Bell and Howell movie camera. He proceeded to pan the entire city skyline, including the harbor, the industrial sections and other potentially strategic targets. It is claimed that those films provided some of the intelligence used in General Jimmy Doolittle’s famous 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo.

For his many years of meritorious and heroic service to our country, Moe Berg was presented the Medal of Freedom by President Truman – a medal which he actually refused. The medal currently hangs in a place of honor at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Also, in recognition of Moe Berg’s significant intelligence contributions, his are the only baseball cards on display in the CIA Museum near Washington, DC. The same cards are displayed in the JCC exhibit.

An enigma to the end.

Forced out of the spy business by the late 40’s, Berg remained a bachelor and turned to his family for support. After living with his brother Sam for 17 years, he moved in with his sister Ethel. Out of financial necessity in 1960, he was prepared to break his lifelong silence about his exploits and agreed to write a book. However, the project collapsed when the editor glowingly praised the prospective author’s movies on the mistaken assumption that he was about to sign a contract with Moe of The Three Stooges.

Berg died at 70 on May 29, 1972, in Belleville, NJ, of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Ethel took his ashes to Israel. To this day, no one knows where his remains are buried.

In death, as in life, Moe Berg remains a mystery.