Documentary Review: More Moe Berg is served up in “The Spy Behind Home Plate”

Baseball Players Traveling to Japan for Exhibition Game

Did you see the game but not great big screen biography, “The Catcher was a Spy,” starring Paul Rudd as the mysterious baseball player turned pre-CIA agent Moe Berg last year?

Well, here’s another chance — one among MANY — to learn about Berg, who has been the subject of documentaries long and short, on ESPN and elsewhere.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate” is a non-fiction documentary treatment that provides mountains of context, to the extent it gets sidetracked. It lacks a narrator and thus unfolds in a blizzard of testimonials, historians, relatives, baseball colleagues and others who are passed off as experts on Berg.

There are too many of them, and several come off as people who were fed portions of the story to tell. Yes, baseball’s Bud Selig and Jerry Reinsdorf — executives, with Selig a former commissioner — have certainly heard Berg’s story, and maybe connected to it as they are, like Berg, Jewish. But “experts?” The film is cluttered with people whose authority on the subject lacks the weight of Nicholas Dawidoff, who appears here and wrote the biography in which “The Catcher was a Spy” was based on.

Director Aviva Kempner has made a career in historical films about Jews in American pop culture such as “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the most famous Jewish ballplayer of his era, and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” about an almost-forgotten ethnic star of early American television.

Here, she pushes out a film with seemingly more authority than “Catcher was a Spy,” but that lacks the clarity of a narrator, and needed one. And truthfully, she doesn’t fill in much more of the “mystery” than the Paul Rudd film did.

We hear “He loved being a mystery…he would disappear after games,” that Berg, who played for several teams in an indifferent big league career that lasted 15 years, was “a loner” who loved to travel and longed to “experience the world.”

If you’ve ever heard anything about Morris Berg, you’ll know he had degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law, that he was “the brainiest guy in baseball,” that he was a surprising quiz show star of the 1930s, that he “spoke seven languages, and couldn’t hit in any of’em.” “Spy Behind the Plate” does an excellent job of underscoring Berg’s real value as a ballplayer — great defense behind the plate, excellent at handling pitchers.

I didn’t know he started out as a shortstop, or that the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) wanted Berg, straight out of college, because he was Jewish and he’d be a draw in Brooklyn’s large Jewish community.

We get a picture of the family he grew up in, his self-made immigrant/pharmacist father who pushed all his children into prestigious professions, but whose son Morris balked at that and took up America’s passtime.

None of the Berg siblings married. Telling? The movie only mentions it.

Kempner’s best sequence is that recalling Berg’s first alleged brush with espionage, a 1934 All Star team exhibition trip through militarized World War II Japan (Remember, Japan had already invaded Manchuria).

Somehow, the great-glove/can’t field Berg ended up on that team with Babe Ruth (whom he got on great with). For some reason, Berg collected a letter from the U.S. Secretary of State to cover his activities on the tour through the secretive country.

Kempner uses still photos and actual 16mm footage Berg took while there to show how he was going places (in native Japanese garb) and filming things our future adversaries strictly forbade.

By the time his ball playing career was over, World War II was going and the O.S.S., the future C.I.A., had use for the guy who sent the government his 1934 footage after Dec. 7, 1941. It was supposedly shown to the Doolittle Raid pilots and crew.

“The Spy Behind the Plate” is an impatient film with an abrupt beginning and a generally hurried parade of interview subjects, as if Kempner was anxious to get this out the door before “The Catcher was a Spy” came out, or was irritated when she couldn’t.

With all the people who knew him, were related to him or who interviewed him (sports columnists and others), the portrait that emerges doesn’t really get at what drove Berg.

The intimate material and truly revealing anecdotes are rare.

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So Kempner serves up frequent and lengthy sidebars — about William Donovan’s formation of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), Marlene Dietrich’s recruitment to the O.S.S., about the A-bomb “Manhattan Project,” the spy career of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, for Pete’s sake.

It’s as if she expects her viewers to know Berg’s story (with good reason) and felt compelled to go beyond that to build him up.

The knowledge that he was awarded the Medal of Freedom makes that burnishing unnecessary.

I liked hearing the clips of Berg on the quiz show “Information Please,” seeing the footage from Japan (he went twice, in 1932 and ’34), learning that Berg was pals with Babe Ruth.

And I have enjoyed Kempner’s earlier films.

But “The Spy Behind the Plate” feels played, stuffed with filler, overrun with experts of varying merit, and doesn’t break enough new ground to warrant the effort.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Directed by Aviva Kempner. A Ciesla Foundation release.

Running time: 1:41

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