The Intersections of Jews, Baseball, and Documentaries
Among the large cult of Americans who are obsessed with the intersections of baseball and Judaism, the name Moe Berg is viewed with uncommon reverence – perhaps more reverence, in fact, than any name other than that of Sandy Koufax.
Berg, as any Jews-in-baseball obsessive could tell you, was a journeyman catcher for several teams in the 1930s and ’40s, who played for the Boston Red Sox and other teams.
…the name Moe Berg is viewed with uncommon reverence…
But the graduate of Princeton and Columbia Law School was much more accomplished away from the field: Not only did he speak as many as ten languages, but Berg served in the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA, during World War II, where he played a part in preventing the Germans from getting the atomic bomb. It’s been said that he even did some spying during his playing career.
Berg, who became reclusive later in life and died in 1972, was the subject of a much-read 1994 biography called The Catcher Was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff. A film adaptation was in the works for years, with the likes of George Clooney attached at various points, and it was finally made last year with Paul Rudd starring as Berg. The ‘Catcher’ film, however, received only a perfunctory theatrical release, opposite a Marvel superhero film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, which starred the same lead actor.
Now, there’s another Berg film, a documentary called The Spy Behind Home Plate. Coming from director Aviva Kempner – who also directed a documentary about another Jewish baseball hero, Hank Greenberg, in the late 1990s – the film comes at Berg’s life from a different, more analytical angle.
…The Spy Behind Home Plate. Coming from director Aviva Kempner – who also directed a documentary about another Jewish baseball hero, Hank Greenberg…
The Spy Behind Home Plate has its work cut out for it, as Berg is not only long dead, but so are most of the people who knew him, and he was a famously secretive man. But the film does a good job explaining what it can about Moe Berg the man.
We get the baseball stories and the spy stories, many of which will be familiar to those who know the other projects.
Berg was so mysterious that none of the various projects about the never married spy can seem to agree about whether or not he was gay. The book raised the possibility, and the Rudd film seemed to confirm it, but Kempner’s doc doesn’t mention it.
Mazel Tov, Team Israel
Speaking of Jews-in-baseball projects that touch, though not too much, on the sociopolitical, there’s another such documentary arriving this month. Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel recounts the surprising episode back in 2016 when Team Israel – a team comprised entirely of American journeymen ballplayers of Jewish ethnicity, and not a single Israeli – made a shocking run in the World Baseball Classic tournament.
Heading Home, which played on the Jewish film festival circuit a year ago, finally hits theaters this month. The tale it tells is strange and weird in many ways, but there’s no doubt that it’s a great story.
The World Baseball Classic is a quadrennial tournament in which different countries of ballplayers compete for the world championship. The rules of the tournament state that any player is eligible to play for any country in which they meet the requirements of citizenship. This has been used in the past for American athletes to play for their nation of ethnic origin; the Pennsylvania-born Mike Piazza once played in the WBC for Italy.
But because Israel allows Jews from anywhere in the world automatic citizenship, Team Israel was able to field a team consisting entirely of American Jews. And not only that, but none of the recent wave of star players who are Jewish – Ryan Braun, Alex Bregman, Joc Pederson – took part.
…the team made a deep run into the second round of the tournament, drawing worldwide media coverage and turning the team’s doll mascot, The Mensch on the Bench, into an instant icon.
So despite fielding a team led by the likes of Josh Zeid, Ike Davis, Cody Decker and other fringe major leaguers, the team made a deep run into the second round of the tournament, drawing worldwide media coverage and turning the team’s doll mascot, The Mensch on the Bench, into an instant icon.
We see the players meeting one another, taking a tour of Israeli landmarks that would look familiar to anyone who took such a trip in high school, and then playing in the tournament in the spring of 2016. It mostly stays away from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, although we see the players meeting with Palestinian merchants in Jerusalem, and at one point it’s revealed that Sheldon Adelson had funded the team’s travel.
If you can get past the farce that an entire team of players are competing for a country that not a single one of them is actually from, Heading Home is a capable and entertaining look at a great real-life story.