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From the MLB diamond to spy; Moe Berg documentary has connections to New Mexico

Moe Berg, the subject of a documentary that opens in theaters Friday, played in the majors for five teams from 1923-39. (Courtesy of the Ciesla Foundation)

Aviva Kempner is no stranger to New Mexico, having lived in Albuquerque while working for Vista in the 1970s.

There’s a New Mexico connection as well to Moe Berg, the subject of Kempner’s compelling and entertaining documentary film “The Spy Behind Home Plate.”

To reveal that connection would be unfair to those who go to see the film, which debuts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe on Friday. But here are a few hints.

Los Alamos.

Manhattan Project.

And, for all you “Breaking Bad” fans, Heisenberg.

Kempner, a Washington D.C. resident, makes documentaries principally dedicated to the lives and deeds of accomplished Jewish people, like Berg, while combatting anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotypes.

Among her works:

“Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” the story of TV pioneer Gertrude Berg (no relation to Moe).

“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” telling the story of the Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer and the anti-Semitism he faced during his career.

“Rosenwald,” a feature-length film about Julius Rosenwald, a businessman and philanthropist who helped build more than 5,000 schools in the Jim Crow-era South.

Aviva Kempner

Kempner, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and a U.S. Army officer, has not limited herself to issues involving Judaism. Her New Mexico connection helped her co-write and co-produce “Casuse,” a film about Native American activist Larry Casuse, who in 1973 kidnapped the mayor of Gallup and in so doing lost his life.

In Moe Berg, Kempner hardly could have chosen a more fascinating subject.

Berg’s father, Bernard, had nothing but contempt for the idea of a baseball career and wanted his son to become a lawyer. Following his own path, Moe, born in 1902, played 15 years in the Major Leagues for five teams spanning 1923-39. He was a shortstop and a catcher.

But he also graduated with honors from Princeton, acquired a law degree from Columbia, became fluent in multiple languages and, yes, spied for the U.S. during World War II.

“I think the real lesson I take away from this,” Kempner said in a phone interview, “is ‘follow your dreams.’ If he had followed his father’s dream, he probably would have been bored throughout his life.

“But it’s also about immigrants. … I’m an immigrant. I was born in Berlin after (World War II), and people (in the U.S.) made fun of my English.”

Berg was born in New York City and grew up in Newark, N.J., but his parents emigrated from Ukraine. Berg’s international background, Kempner’s film makes it clear, helped him pass for a European while spying for the U.S. during the war.

“It’s those kinds of people that are our spies in North Korea and the Middle East and Russia now,” she said. “In times of war and in times of peril, we need to draw from people with world experiences.”

After making the Greenberg film, Kempner said, she was eager to make another film about a Jewish athlete. She considered football quarterback Sid Luckman and boxer Barney Ross, but opted for Berg (in part) because she’s a baseball fan and not a boxing or football fan.

Berg died in 1972. Kempner interviewed authors and journalists who knew him but relied heavily on taped interviews she found “sort of languishing away” in archives at Princeton. Berg’s older brother, Sam, and several baseball teammates are among those interviewees.

There are lots of photos of Berg, in and out of uniform, blended with scenes from Hollywood movies depicting the World War II era in which Berg served his country.

It all might not have happened, Kempner said, had not an agent — once consulted by Berg about a possible autobiography — made a fateful mistake.

“(The agent said), ‘OK, Moe, tell me what it was like to be one of the Three Stooges,'” she said. End of project.

“So, there was no autobiography, and I think there would have been a film, too. So in a way I owe that agent a favor.”

 

‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’

Opens Friday: Regal UA High Ridge Theaters, Albuquerque; The Screen at the Center For Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe

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