The Spy Behind Home Plate

The story of Moe Berg, the US spy who wanted to be sent to Israel

The poster for the documentary film ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ about Moe Berg, the enigmatic Jewish catcher during baseball’s Golden Age who joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to spy for the US on the Nazis’ atomic bomb program. The movie opened at cinemas across the US on May 24 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The poster for the documentary film ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’ about Moe Berg, the enigmatic Jewish catcher during baseball’s Golden Age who joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to spy for the US on the Nazis’ atomic bomb program. The movie opened at cinemas across the US on May 24
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Like his enigmatic life, Moe Berg’s death is also shrouded in mystery. In some books, articles and other testimonies, it is claimed that he had asked that when he dies, his ashes be spread over Jerusalem.
“I don’t know if he wanted to be cremated,” says Aviva Kempner. “We know his sister had him cremated and sent the ashes with a rabbi to spread them over Mount Scopus. His brother could never verify if they were.”
The Washington-based Kempner is the creator of a new documentary film, The Spy Behind Home Plate, on the adventurous life of Berg, which recently opened in theaters across the US.
Her thoroughly researched film is a major and important contribution to the renewed interest in the eccentric Berg, who from the 1920s to the 1950s was considered as one of the adored heroes of the Jewish community, but was forgotten in later years.
The title refers to the two professions which characterized Berg’s life: baseball and spycraft. In assembling archival footage, Kempner was assisted by Neil Goldstein, a filmmaker who years ago directed interviews with more than a dozen of Berg’s former colleagues from the US intelligence community, as well as baseball players, for a film that was never produced.
From the cradle, Berg’s life was wrapped in deceptions. He was born in 1902, although neither the exact date is known nor whether his first name was Morris or Moses. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who moved from Harlem in New York City to Roseville, a suburb of Newark in New Jersey. Bernard Berg, his father, was a pharmacist, and Roseville offered him everything he wanted in a neighborhood – good schools, middle-class residents, and very few Jews.
Despite the efforts of his family – like many other Jews – to assimilate, forget their roots and be part of their new environment, their neighbors would not let them forget who they were. Open and hidden antisemitism was widespread, and middle-class Jews were not accepted into civil society. The doors of country clubs, golf clubs, sport teams and prestigious colleges were locked for them.
However Berg, who showed a great talent for languages, was lucky. At the age of 16, he finished high school and as the First World War ended, he enrolled as a student at New York University.
A year later he moved to Princeton, and because of his linguistic talents – he spoke Latin, ancient Greek, Sanskrit, French, German and Spanish and a little bit of Yiddish and Hebrew – he overcame the hostility from his teachers and peers, who had looked down on him for being a Jew.
He excelled in his studies, but what really helped him “to realize the American dream” was his outstanding performance on the baseball field. He caught the attention of the managers of the New York Giants and Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers), who were scouting for the growing number of Jews playing the sport.
To the dismay of his father, who wanted his son to be a lawyer, Berg began a long career as a professional baseball catcher, coach and manager. His career lasted from 1923 to 1939, spreading from New York to Chicago, Washington and Boston. To appease his angry father, Berg also obtained a law degree from Columbia, but never practiced as a lawyer.
His professional baseball career not only made him famous but also broadened his horizons and interests. While in Washington, he discovered the diplomatic world. He was invited or invited himself to cocktail parties, and was introduced to politicians, state officials, foreign diplomats and their wives.
He soon developed a reputation as a “womanizer,” yet a feature film on Berg released last year, which was based on the 1994 Nicholas Dawidoff biography, The Spy Was a Catcher, hints that he was bisexual. Kempner found no evidence to verify this claim.
As the threat to world peace and America was growing in the wake of the rise of Nazism in Germany, Italian fascism and Japanese military nationalism, Berg found himself increasingly drawn to international politics.
The turning point was in 1934. By then, Berg was already an amateur photographer, using an advanced 16 mm, Bell & Howell film camera. That year, Major League Baseball managers organized an all-star team to visit Japan, which included such legends as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez – and Moe Berg.
On November 29, 1934, while the rest of the team was playing in Tokyo, Berg dressed in a man’s kimono and went to Saint Luke’s Hospital, ostensibly to visit the daughter of the American ambassador. Instead, Berg sneaked onto the roof of the hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, and secretly filmed the city and harbor with his movie camera.
In December 1941, after the US declared war on Japan and entered the Second World War, Berg was recruited as a result of his polyglot skills by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), founded by General William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan. The OSS was at the time the main intelligence agency of the US, and served as the forerunner of the CIA.
Berg gave American intelligence officers the rare film he had shot in Tokyo, and the footage served to prepare targets for the US air bombardment of the Japanese capital.
After rigorous training, Berg was assigned to the special operations unit of the OSS. He was dispatched to Italy to elicit from Italian scientists – who had known and worked with their German colleagues – whether Nazi Germany was on the path to producing a nuclear bomb, and if so, when. During his stay in Italy, Berg was also tasked to find Antonio Ferri, an Italian aerodynamics expert who had gone into hiding. Berg not only found him but also helped translate a cache of hidden documents.
William Colby, who served with Berg in the OSS and served as the CIA director during the 1970s, praised the espionage skills of Berg in Kempner’s film.
Another important mission, probably his most famous, was to track the famous German nuclear scientist Werner Heisenberg, who traveled in December 1944 to neutral Switzerland to deliver a lecture. Berg’s mission was to determine from the lecture how close the Nazis were to building a nuclear bomb – and if he reached a positive conclusion, to assassinate Heisenberg.
To acquaint himself with the mission, Berg studied books and articles about nuclear physics, chemistry and engineering. Posing as a student, he arrived at the lecture in Zurich.
Armed with a pistol, Berg even managed to persuade Heisenberg to go with him on a stroll after a dinner party. From the lecture and the conversation, Berg concluded that the scientist still had a long way to go in developing the bomb — and therefore there was no need to kill him. In the feature film, there’s a shootout during the walk. Kempner doesn’t believe it actually happened.
In the late 1940s, Berg – who had now gained a reputation as an expert in assessing enemies’ nuclear ambitions – joined the CIA and was sent to Europe to find out about the Soviet Union’s nuclear program. Berg found nothing. His superiors were disappointed, and reached the conclusion that he had failed in his mission.
In 1951, during his first visit to the US as Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion met with CIA director-general Walter Bedell Smith. Encouraged by his advisers – including the future mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and the founder of the Mossad, Reuven Shiloh – Ben-Gurion reached a verbal understanding to establish close ties between the intelligence communities of the two nations.
Around the same time, Berg begged his CIA managers to appoint him as the first liaison officer to Israel. “Only a Jew can do it,” he wrote. But suspecting that Israel – filled with hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Soviet bloc and with its socialist policies – was a haven for communist spies, CIA officials thought to the contrary. Instead, James Angleton, a counter-espionage chief in the CIA, was selected to run the Israeli “file.”
Feeling rejected, Berg left the CIA and became even more isolated and eccentric. Based on testimonies of friends and relatives, including his brother Samuel, Moe Berg “wasted” the last years of his life until his death in 1972.
He moved between friends’ apartments until he ultimately resided with his brother. Samuel admitted in the film that his brilliant brother became very moody, and found his solace only in books and newspapers.
When asked how he was making a living, Berg would put his finger on his lips, trying to create the impression that he was still involved the shadowy world of espionage.
During her research, Kempner asked me whether I had heard the rumors that Berg had been a secret adviser to prime minister Golda Meir, who was born in Kiev but grew up in America. This claim too could not be verified.

Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman