With the reeling Washington Nationals back in town Friday, do you feel like you desperately need to watch some baseball here in town that won’t leave you angry and frustrated?
Aviva Kempner has what you’re looking for.
The award-winning District filmmaker, the writer, producer and director of the great documentary, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” has a new film premiering Friday night at the Avalon Theatre about a former Washington Senators catcher who would go on to become an American spy and hero in World War II.
“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” is the compelling tale of Moe Berg, a former major league catcher who lived several lifetimes over his 70 years, earning the title of the “brainiest guy in baseball” who became a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.
He undertook dangerous missions, including finding and interviewing Italian rocket scientists working for the Nazis and also was given the dangerous task of traveling to Switzerland and possibly assassinating German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the man the Allies believed was close to developing the atomic bomb.
That’s a long way from catching balls and strikes at Griffith Stadium.
“It’s someone who I think is a forgotten American hero because of his secret missions, because he didn’t talk about them or write about them,” Kempner said. “This just fits in perfectly with what I want to do. And he played for the Senators, so that was of great interest, too. He played for the winning Senators, going to the World Series in 1933.”
It was a story made to be told by Kempner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose commitment is to make films about unheralded Jewish heroes. She also grew up a baseball fan. “I grew up with an immigrant mother and father who taught us to love baseball,” she said.
Kempner said it was her father who inspired her to make this film. “I finished the film on the 43rd anniversary of my father’s death,” she said.
Berg played for the Senators from 1932 to 1934, one of five major league clubs he played for from 1923 to 1939, the others being the Brooklyn Robins, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox.
He wasn’t an All-Star — over 15 seasons, Berg batted .243 with 441 hits and 206 RBI — but his brains carried him a long way, on the field and in the clubhouse.
“He was well-liked by his teammates,” Kempner said. “Players said he would give them history and current events lessons in the bullpen.
Kempner was able to get footage of an interview done with teammates of Berg from an unfinished previous documentary attempt. “He had a great rapport with his teammates,” he said. “They really looked up to him.”
He knew both history and current events well. Berg studied seven languages and attended New York University and Princeton. He would read a pile of newspapers every day, and, if you are a newspaperman like me, this nugget warms your heart. “He had this thing with his newspapers where if he was still reading one, it was alive and you couldn’t touch it, and when he was done with them, he said they were dead,” Kempner said.
In those newspapers, Berg was reading about where the world was heading, both in Europe and Japan. He made two baseball exhibition trips to Japan, accompanying Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and other star players, and on one of those trips, while under the cover of visiting the daughter of the American ambassador, he went to a Japanese hospital that was one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. He took a movie camera to the roof of the building and filmed the city and harbor, giving American intelligence a rare look at the city.
After he retired from baseball, he made several successful appearances on the radio quiz show “Information Please,” and then, when the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Berg joined American intelligence and would later join the OSS, where he was given the assignment of finding out how close the Germans were to developing an atomic weapon.
He attended the Heisenberg lecture with a gun hidden inside his belt and a cyanide pill and later met with Swiss officials. “I had heard about Heisenberg, and he faced terrible danger, risking his life,” Kempner said. He determined the Germans were not working on an atomic bomb at the time.
Berg’s life after the war was not nearly as inspiring, living with relatives with no real job. He died in 1972 from injuries after a fall at home.
Unlike Kempner, Berg’s father had never shown any interest in his son’s baseball career. “The sad story is that his father never saw him play, either as a young boy or in high school or 15 years in the major leagues.”
Berg’s passion for baseball, though, remained until the end. “The last thing he said was, ‘How did the Mets do?’”
They swept the Nationals, Moe.
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