Aviva Kempner on ‘The Spy Behind Home Plate’
The Spy Behind Home Plate, the fascinating story of the 1920s-1930s baseball catcher Moe Berg, is the latest film by Aviva Kempner, creator and producer of the award-winning documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. Kempner’s passion for telling stories about under-known Jewish heroes along with her lifelong love of baseball was the inspiration for her current film. This feature-length documentary explores Berg’s upbringing by Jewish immigrant parents, his affection for baseball and devotion to his country. Kempner speaks with Moment about how The Spy Behind Home Plate took shape and why Berg’s story is important for us to know today.
How and when did you become enamored with baseball?
My father, Harold Kempner, came to America in the 20s and he, like many immigrants, began a love affair with baseball. When I was almost four we moved to Detroit and so my brother and I grew up with my father always listening to games, taking us to games, talking about baseball.
And when did you first become interested in Moe Berg and decide to do a documentary on him?
I had heard about him when I was making my Hank Greenberg film—I had decided to make a film on Hank Greenberg the day after I heard he died. So when I started researching Jewish baseball players, Moe of course came up. And then a couple of years later when Nicholas Dawidoff’s book about Moe came out, and my DVD came out about Hank Greenberg, we were on the same circuit and people would bring it up, and I’m fascinated with films about underknown Jewish heroes and fighting those “isms,” especially Nazis, being the child of a Holocaust survivor and having a father who was in the military and losing so many primary family members during WWII.
At the time when you decided that you wanted to do a documentary on Moe, had you known that Jerry Feldman and Neil Goldstein had all those interviews of people who knew Moe?
Let me tell you how it happened. There was one person who really sought me out—he really loved The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg—and that was William Levine, a businessman in Phoenix, Arizona. And I got to know him and he gave a little support to the Molly Goldberg film. As I tease, I have this thing with “bergs.” And one day we’re sitting there talking and he said, “Aviva, you have to make a film about the Jewish football player named Sid Luckman.” And I said, “But I don’t like football.” “Okay, what about the Jewish boxer named Barney Ross?” And I said, “Bill, I don’t like boxing.” But then, as I said, third time is the charm, and he said the magic words “Moe Berg” and I said, “Oh, I’d love to.” And he agreed—this is the first time this ever happened—to finance the whole film.
So after that happened, I remembered that when I was filming my Hank Greenberg interviews in Los Angeles, my cameraman, Jerry Feldman, told me that he was making a film on Moe Berg but it had never happened. And someone else that I met in passing, I don’t even remember who it was, said to me there’s a guy named Neil Goldstein who had been making a film on Moe Berg. It turns out Neil had deposited all the interviews from 30 years ago that were in some form that we couldn’t really look at at the Princeton Archives, and they were just collecting dust. And 18 of them we used, and they were just great. And then two ESPN interviews. And what really makes the film is the fact that we really have this great interview with his brother.
So I am really lucky, all that was sitting in the Princeton Archives and I paid for rights and digitized the interviews. Whenever I introduce the film, I always mention it because sometimes people come out of the film scratching their head and saying, “Boy, how did she get those interviews of Joe DiMaggio and William Colby.”
Was it difficult to secure the rights to use, or was it just because it’s part of Princeton?
No, they still own the material, at least Jerry did. And they’re thrilled. It was wonderful because Jerry came to the opening here in Washington. I had that big opening at the Jewish Film Festival and Neil came to the opening in Philadelphia and Jerry lives in L.A. and he again was there. They’re ecstatic. Because they did all this work, but the film didn’t get made. As a matter of fact, there’s another documentary that was made in Chicago and apparently the funder didn’t like the deal, and that film never got released. And then for years, people like Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Rob Reiner, George Clooney were all trying to make a film about Moe Berg. But it never happened, I guess because of the funding, and then finally there was a feature film last year.
Did you know when you were doing your documentary that the feature film was happening?
Oh no, that just came out of the blue.
How many new interviews did you end up conducting for this documentary?
I think another 20 or 25.
There was a pretty young baseball player who you had in the film.
Brad Ausmus [former catcher and current manager for the Los Angeles Angels and is in the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame]. First I asked Joe Torre, who had been the Yankees catcher and then the manager for years with the Yankees and now works for MLB and I had seen him last year and verbally he said “Yes, I’d be in it.” I never arranged the meeting. And then I realized that Brad Ausmus is the perfect person: A) he’s Jewish, B) he went to Dartmouth which is another Ivy League school and 3) he had been a catcher and he really knew what that position was and I think he gives a great interview. There may be more of him in the bonus features.
What was your approach to creating the documentary? How did you decide on the structure and how the interviews would go?
There had been two books written on Moe Berg. Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was a Spy being the one that was the most recent and we thought a really good book, but it was also that there were more and more declassified documents. My M.O. was always to start with the roots, to start with the parents, and Moe’s father is certainly a character. Such a hard-working immigrant, the way he came over and worked himself out from sweatshops to becoming a pharmacist, but on the other hand he wanted his kids to fulfill this immigrant dream—one to be a doctor, one to be a lawyer, his daughter a teacher. I just cannot imagine never seeing his son play either as a young man or at Princeton or 15 years in the majors. It’s pretty sad, don’t you think?
I wanted to start with Moe’s roots. And it also shows the parents speaking foreign languages, growing up in Newark. It shows character too, and how as young boy, this thing about playing on a Christian team and having a pseudonym (Runt Wolfe), that was his first spy act.
Did you come up with any revelations or discoveries in your research that were previously unknown, especially with all the declassified documents?
I think we have more on what he did in terms of his Italian mission, how he tracked down where Heisenberg would be. Certainly, getting Antonio Ferri out. I actually got the lead to find his son, Paul Ferri, from my cousin’s daughter’s wedding. I’m talking to a guest who’s an old family friend of theirs but I’ve known for years and I say, “I’m making a film on Moe Berg.” And he says, “You gotta interview my friend Paul Ferri.” Now so many years later, he had put a book together for his children of all the photographs and the documents of how his father was in the partisans, the painting on the wall in Florida which we filmed, which showed where the family hid while the father was in the partisans.
Why do you think Moe’s story is important for us to know today?
First of all, my M.O. is to focus on positive underknown Jewish heroes. So I think just for us as a people, especially in a new swing of anti-Semitism, both in the world and in America, it’s nice to have an American Jewish hero who’s as much an American hero. I think the OSS is under known, and those four and a half years were a very brief period where these men and women from all walks of life contributed to the war effort, much to the jealously of other intelligence agencies. The role that immigrants played is also important. And the fact that Moe knew all these languages, growing up with foreign parents, and the importance of immigrants helping in these intelligence operations.
Why do you suppose Moe decided to film from the rooftop of the hospital? Do you think he was just curious, or do you think he thought he could play a role when he got back to the U.S.?
I think he had that letter from the ambassador. I think someone may have said to him, or on his own volition, find out what you can because Japan had already invaded Manchuria, and this was sort of the last-ditch effort of a good will tour. But they also asked for the other footage the other players took.
Were there other Jews that were hired by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services)?
Apparently, there were a lot of Jews, men, women, gays, communists. It was a united effort to bring down Hitler.
And nobody was really concerned that people would recognize Moe when he went after Heisenberg?
Someone asked me the question the other day. You could never do it in today’s world with Instagram. They just didn’t have that.
Any thoughts on why Moe and Estella never reunited?
After the 13-year relationship, he was going off to the OSS. He didn’t marry her. She married another man, had children. But for both of them, this was the love of their lives.
Any reasons you’ve have found why he and his siblings, Sam and Ethel, never married?
Aviva Miller, who was in the film, she herself was trying to make a film about Moe and she got to know Sam very well. She told me that Sam talked about having been in Japan studying the effects of radiation, and he was worried that maybe he would be affected. Ethel had a fiancé, it never worked out. And I think Moe came back from the war a different man and just couldn’t establish roots. In some respects, he’s the definition of the wandering Jew.