Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Moe Berg: Pitcher vs. Catcher, Spy vs. Spy

The mystery of Moe Berg is not one that will be solved anytime soon—if ever. Berg (1902-1972) was a Jewish-American baseball player known less for his athletic prowess than for being the so-called “brainiest guy in baseball.” A gentleman and a scholar, he graduated from Princeton, magna cum laude, with a degree in modern languages. It’s said he’d studied seven languages (including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit), and spoke several of them fluently. While playing professional ball he also earned a Columbia University law degree.

In Casey Stengel’s words, Berg was “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” But play he did, from 1923 to 1939, ending up as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox. In the off-season he traveled abroad, taking classes at the Sorbonne and developing the habit of reading 10 newspapers daily. He also appeared three times on a popular radio quiz show, Information, Please, dazzling listeners with his extensive knowledge of etymology, while refusing to answer any questions about his personal life.

But the most remarkable period of Moe Berg’s career came during World War II (though the facts weren’t divulged until decades later). In 1943 he joined the OSS, the forerunner of today’s CIA, and was sent on secret missions supporting the Allied cause. As an American and a Jew, he faced huge risks while traveling in Nazified Europe under false papers. His most dangerous moment came in 1944 when he was sent by his OSS superiors to meet the Nobel-Prize-winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg. The goal: to ascertain whether the Nazis, under Heisenberg’s leadership, were in process of building an atom bomb. Before his trip, Berg was given a pistol and orders to shoot Berg if the development of the bomb seemed imminent. He was also handed a cyanide tablet in case he was captured.

The drama of Berg’s meeting with Heisenberg became the centerpiece of a 2018 film, The Catcher Was a Spy, based on Nicholas Davidoff’s book of the same name. I had looked forward to seeing it, because I’ve interviewed its director, Ben Lewin, regarding his best known film, The Sessions. That very small, very poignant drama—a  true story about how a young polio survivor who needs an iron lung happily loses his virginity to a sex surrogate—received much public acclaim as well as an Oscar nomination for Helen Hunt. I was less a fan of Lewin’s next film project, Please Stand By, in which Dakota Fanning plays a runaway girl with autism and a grand passion for Star Trek. (I admit, though, that a scene wholly in Klingon, between Fanning and a sympathetic police officer, works its magic.)

 Lewin has a true affinity for misfits, and I was impressed to see how the scope of his most recent project has broadened. The Catcher Was a Spy, beautifully filmed in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, features such screen luminaries as Tom Wilkinson, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti. Paul Rudd, normally known for comic and romantic roles, gets to stretch as the enigmatic Berg. The film’s main problem, I believe, is that it builds to a dramatic climax, and then can’t deliver. But I certainly look forward to seeing what Lewin does next.

This film and the book from which it derives both posit that Berg was a closeted gay man. Aviva Kempner’s new documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, is skeptical of that approach to the mysterious Berg, given the results of her own research. I haven’t yet seen her film, but a movie-loving colleague of mine attests to its power.

A tip of my imaginary hat to my filmgoing buddy, Susan Henry. 

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