MovieMonday: The Real Moe Berg?

There have been two biographical films in the last year about Moe Berg, an early 20th century character of some interest.  What the films tell us ultimately is what we already know from current literature — that post-millennial erudition is inadequate to deal with genuinely complex characters.

Briefly, here is the Moe Berg story:

He was born in 1902 to hardworking Jewish immigrants and raised in Newark, N.J., where he excelled in baseball and scholarship.  The latter led him to Princeton University, which was unusual for a Jew at the time.  While there he earned a magna cum laude, also unusual at the time, in languages and was the star player on the school baseball team.

There followed a career as a journeyman shortstop and then catcher (after a serious knee injury) plus a law degree at Columbia University to fulfill his non-religious father’s wishes.  Bernard Berg was said to regard sports as narakeit, or non-serious, and never deigned to attend one of Moe’s games.

Berg’s language skills led him twice to Japan in the 1930s as part of baseball goodwill efforts and, per him, to capture 1936 film footage that came in handy for planners of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo following the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.

Later Berg enlisted in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Bill Donovan-led precursor to the CIA that aimed to catch up with established German and Japanese intelligence services. Berg’s mandate was to investigate how close Germany was to developing an atomic bomb.

Berg, who died of illness in 1972, kept his own counsel.  He had a reserved nature, and even the people who knew him best describe him as an enigma.

So here we go.

The Spy Behind Home Plate (2019)

This documentary, released in a limited number of theaters last month, is the more accurate of the Berg films.  Both titles play up the baseball player/spy dichotomy, apparently to attract viewers.

This film is by far the better of the two.  It relies on old films, many archival interviews including one with Moe Berg’s brother, and many photos of Berg in uniform, with legendary baseball greats, with a woman he romanced and in his travels to Europe and Asia.

Perhaps to deal with the absence of available public information about Berg’s spy work, the movie offers broad and interesting context about the formation of the OSS under extreme time constraints as the US Manhattan Project developed an atomic bomb and worried whether it could complete the task before Germany did.

The Catcher was a Spy (2018)

This movie bombed last year, and it is not hard to see why.  It casts Berg as a baseball player/action hero in World War II and amps up the known story to make it even more dramatically appealing than in fact it was.

This fictionalized Berg is awarded agency and then congratulated for it in everything he does.  In 1936 he follows foreign policy instructions to make films later used by Jimmy Doolittle.  He seeks out a fellow Princeton alum to get himself into the OSS.  He bravely dodges Nazi gunfire that kills many others in a Rome under siege to find the friend of a key German physicist.   After a nonreligious and non-affiliated  life, he calls up a former girlfriend and attends his first Friday service at a synagogue (in a Zurich crawling with Nazi agents and with the apparent assent of the OSS) before his critical mission. He outwits the German physicist intellectually, with mental chess plays.  He concludes, against OSS orders, that the physicist is not a danger and does not need to be assassinated.

Films at Odds

Beyond the foregoing, what seems really to have set off Berg fans about the 2018 movie were its repeated suggestions that Berg was gay or at least bisexual.   Probably in response, the 2019 documentary goes to some lengths to assert that he loved Paris for its “wine, women and song,” and to emphasize his long romance with a Boston pianist.

The whole issue strikes me as silly.  In 1930, when Berg was 28 and of prime marriage age, almost 42 percent of American men were bachelors.  Certainly some were gay and in the closet, but Berg, as we have said, was a private man and also a baseball player who rotated from team to team and city to city, which would tend to frustrate family ambitions.  Additionally, neither of his siblings married.

Maybe he was private and reclusive because he was gay.  But it is also possible that he was conflicted between his father’s wishes for him to have a law career and his own preference for baseball.  Or maybe being a prominent Jew at Princeton and in baseball conflicted with his background, which he neither embraced nor denied.

And, just maybe, Berg had a screw loose.  In the documentary, much is made of his love of reading and how he carried a bag of newspapers, in various languages, in his many travels before the war.  Of this, one of the interviewees said, “But if you would touch one of his newspapers, it was dead to him and he wouldn’t touch it.”

After Berg’s work in baseball and the spy game, he never held another job and lived alternately with his brother and his sister.  In his later years he is described in the 1995 Berg biography that was the source material for both movies, as difficult to boring to self-centered.  None of that, if true, invalidates his accomplishments.

Moe Berg was a man of remarkable intellect and talent.  It should not be surprising if his life’s path was not a straight line.

Note

The 2019 film includes an interview with Franklin Foer of “The Atlantic” magazine.  Foer notes that a 1941 submission, “Pitchers and Catchers” by Berg, remains “one of the most anthologized articles in sports writing.”  It’s a good read.

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