Who Was Moe Berg? A Spy, a Big-League Catcher along with also an Enigma
Moe Berg played 15 mostly unremarkable seasons as a catcher inside the majors for various teams, retiring in 1939 which has a mediocre career batting average of .243 along with also a paltry six home runs. About his only notable accomplishment was an American League record of 117 consecutive errorless games inside the 1930s. This kind of is usually hardly the stuff of big-screen biopics. although factor in his exploits in intelligence during World War II, along with also the draw becomes much clearer. Still, Paul Rudd’s biggest challenge in playing him wasn’t mastering skills behind the plate or in hand-to-hand combat.
“which was trying to figure out who This kind of guy was,” said Mr. Rudd, the star of “The Catcher Was a Spy,” the brand new biopic about the athlete. “I did as much research I could, although I didn’t have a clear idea. Ultimately, I had to pick a lane.”
The athlete turned secret agent’s shifting persona intrigued the screenwriter Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”), who adapted Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” for the movie (opening Friday). “Berg liked to create ambiguity,” Mr. Rodat said. “along with also the film, to some degree, creates ambiguity about his choices.”
Berg’s public image was largely defined by his intellect — he studied foreign languages at Princeton along with also the Sorbonne along with also law at Columbia — which made him a sportswriter’s dream. He earned the nickname Professor Berg as well as a string of attention-grabbing appearances on the well-liked radio quiz show “Information Please.”
Intelligence was what the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the C.I.A.) wanted when which recruited Berg in 1944 along with also asked him to determine if the physicist Werner Heisenberg was close to developing an atomic bomb for the Germans. Berg’s diamond career may have been the perfect preparation.
“Baseball is usually all about espionage,” said George F. Will, the Washington Post columnist who’s known as much for his political coverage as for his love of baseball. “Catchers are being spied on all the time — which’s why they hide their signals to the pitcher down in their crotch.”
The movie’s director, Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”), extended the metaphor. “Baseball is usually a game of deception, secrets along with also strategy,” he said. “Moe’s role as catcher was, in a way, the head deceiver, so the skills he learned as a baseball player served him well as a spy.”
As an intellectual, Berg had something of a kinship with Heisenberg, who was considered the greatest scientific mind of his generation. although Berg was ready to carry out his orders along with also assassinate Heisenberg at a public lecture the two attended in Zurich in 1944 had which become clear which Germany’s nuclear program was nearing success. inside the end — historical spoiler alert! — Berg didn’t kill Heisenberg, as the ex-catcher employed the same keen intuition he displayed on the baseball field.
“He sensed when a runner was going to steal, along with also even though Heisenberg was trying to hide which, Berg knew he was despondent because Germany didn’t hold the bomb along with also was going to lose the war,” Mr. Rodat said. “which was the tell. Berg never understood himself, although he understood some other people.”
Indeed Berg is usually a tricky subject for the biographer along with also the filmmakers. “He was someone who never stood still along with also was professionally enigmatic,” Mr. Dawidoff said. “He was shimmering, alluring along with also elusive, along with also those are qualities we often associate with espionage — along with also celebrities.”
Berg’s baseball career allowed him the rootless existence which he maintained his entire life; he never wed or had children. “The rhythm along with also calendar of the sport enabled him to live inside the unique, solitary, itinerant way which definitely suited him,” Mr. Dawidoff said. “He experienced the country as a sort of de Tocqueville of baseball.” (Berg wrote “Pitchers along with also Catchers,” a 1941 essay for The Atlantic Monthly which is usually still one of the most insightful works ever penned about the game.)
His status as a confirmed bachelor led to rumors about Berg’s sexuality, along with also the film goes further than the book did in suggesting he was bisexual. “I never found evidence he had a gay relationship,” Mr. Dawidoff said. “which was no more than speculation.”
Mr. Rodat said: “The standards of veracity I applied inside the movie were different. As a historian, when there’s smoke, there’s not necessarily fire. As a dramatist, when there’s a massive amount of smoke, there’s probably fire.”
Mr. Rodat along with also Mr. Lewin did their own research, interviewing people who knew Berg intimately. “He was a man who had secrets along with also knew how to conceal things,” Mr. Lewin said. “For us to have gone down which straight-washing path would likely have been a cop-out.”
Mr. Berg kept his sexuality close to the vest, although his ethnicity was proudly trumpeted in an era when Jewish baseball players like Hank Greenberg were relatively rare. “The fact which Berg was Jewish was a plus at the time, because baseball wanted to attract Jewish fans,” Mr. Lewin said.
Even though Berg wasn’t observant, his cultural background played a role in his decision to accept the anti-Nazi assignment. “Growing up in a family of Jewish immigrants” — Berg’s parents emigrated through Russia — “there was a strong pull of his religious heritage,” Mr. Dawidoff said. “He was constantly thinking about along with also confronting his religion.”
which resonated with Mr. Rudd, who also comes through a Russian-Jewish family. “If you’re Jewish, which’s just inside the marrow of your bones,” he said. “which’s part of our identity.”
Still, the more the filmmakers dug into Berg’s story, the less they knew the man behind the catcher’s mask. “He operated behind a whole bunch of screens,” Mr. Rodat said.
As a result, “we didn’t delude ourselves into thinking we were going to solve the enigma,” Mr. Lewin said. “which may be frustrating, although which’s closer to the truth.”
Mr. Rudd felt like he was playing more than one character. “He was an oddball along with also not forthcoming or gregarious,” he said. “Yet when you read some accounts, he was a total charmer. You wonder, ‘is usually This kind of the same guy?’”
Everyone involved with “The Catcher Was a Spy” agrees Berg was a hero, though. “I have no doubt which he exposed himself to real danger,” Mr. Lewin said. “When which comes to sheer guts, he had no shortage.”
Nevertheless, when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, Berg refused which, part of an increasingly inexplicable pattern of behavior which marked his postwar life. “In his last years, he was kind of a drifter,” Mr. Rudd said. Berg died in 1972 after a fall at the age of 70.
If we never definitely grasp who Berg was, which may be just what he desired. “He wasn’t someone who particularly wanted to be known,” Mr. Rudd concluded. “He found pleasure inside the unknowable.”