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Review: 'The Spy Behind Home Plate' presents a ballplayer who was one of a kind

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

They don't make baseball players like Moe Berg anymore. Judging by Aviva Kempner's authoritative and engrossing documentary "The Spy Behind Home Plate," they likely never did.

Known as "the brainiest man in baseball," Berg spoke numerous languages, studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne and during his 15 years in the major leagues liked to travel with a suitcase full of newspapers, books and magazines.

Berg somehow found time to get a law degree at Columbia, and, though not especially gregarious, had an intriguing mixture of friends and acquaintances, including Ian Fleming, Albert Einstein and Chico Marx of the Marx Brothers. He was, said sometime roommate Dom DiMaggio, "a very complicated individual."

And none of that touches on the most compelling part of Berg's story, his tenure as a significant World War II spy for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, someone who was given both a weapon and a cyanide pill before one particularly arduous assignment.

Berg's exploits have attracted media attention before, including Nicholas Dawidoff's nonfiction book "The Catcher Was A Spy" and the Paul Rudd-starring dramatic film that it inspired.

But Kempner, whose previous docs include "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" and "Rosenwald," has done an exceptional job of assembling her sources.

 

First off, she has personally interviewed anyone who might know anything about Berg, including veteran sportswriters Ira Berkow and Larry Merchant, Los Angeles Angels manager Brad Ausmus and former Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

Berg's spying activities bring us authors Thomas Powers and David Ignatius as well as playwright Michael Frayn, whose "Copenhagen" covers related territory. When key subjects are dead, everyone from Walter "Big Train" Johnson to German scientist Werner Heisenberg, descendants are put on camera.

Kempner also arranged for use of interviews with some of Berg's former baseball teammates as well as former CIA Director William E. Colby, all done by filmmakers Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein for a never-completed documentary.

Determined not to drown in talking heads, Kempner and her editor Barbara Ballow have made adroit use of both stock footage and Hollywood spy movies such as the Alan Ladd-starring "O.S.S." and Gary Cooper's "Cloak and Dagger."

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