Rob Edelman: Catchers, Spies, And Moe Berg

Sep 10, 2018

This year, six legends were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. None was Moe Berg. For the record, they were Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman. However, during Induction Weekend, I could not help but think of Moe Berg. One reason was that the Hall continuously-- and justifiably, I might add-- celebrates the military careers and wartime service of its members, from Grover Alexander to Ted Williams. But to my knowledge, none of the new inductees-- or for that matter any baseball Hall of Famer-- accomplished what Berg did once upon a time. It was a remarkable achievement; it has nothing to do with singles, doubles, and triples; and his story is told in a new screen biography, titled THE CATCHER WAS A SPY, with Paul Rudd starring as Moe Berg.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is based on a best-selling book, written by Nicholas Dawidoff, with a longer and far more revealing title: THE CATCHER WAS A SPY: THE MYSTERIOUS LIFE OF MOE BERG. Now admittedly, the film is strictly run-of-the-mill, but it is well-worth citing simply because it charts the life of a singular and fascinating individual. Granted, Berg’s major league career was like most lower-level big leaguers in that it was unremarkable. He was no Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Lefty Grove, or Jimmie Foxx: baseball personalities of his era who are in the Hall of Fame and who are represented onscreen. But what makes Berg so compelling is his academic background, his knowledge of several languages, and his off-the-field connection. While in Japan during a pre-World War II baseball tour, Berg quietly filmed Tokyo’s shipyards and harbor, creating images that were invaluable once the nations were at war. Plus, during the war, Berg’s intelligence, education, and language skills allowed him to be handed a special and dangerous assignment while working for the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS: the forerunner of the CIA.

With this is mind, THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is no mere sports movie. It also is an espionage thriller.

Ultimately and unfortunately, however, the film simplifies what should be a multifaceted and fascinating story, a multifaceted and fascinating life. One other point is worth citing here. Berg never married and so, true to our times, the thought that he might have been gay is acknowledged onscreen. At one juncture, he assures OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan, played by Jeff Daniels, that he “knows how to keep a secret”-- and this goes way beyond his war-related accomplishments. But the manner in which this is presented appears more concerned with grabbing headlines and selling tickets than with solid, revealing storytelling. 

Finally, for those interested in the true essence of Moe Berg and his life and times, and in particular his plight after his wartime heroics, one would be better off reading the book upon which THE CATCHER WAS A SPY is based, not to mention a number of other Moe Berg-related texts.

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.