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Director Aviva Kempner Documents The Baseball Catcher Who Fought Nazis


Stop me if you've heard this one before - a Major League Baseball player gets a side gig working for U.S. intelligence during World War II. Well, that's the story of Morris "Moe" Berg, told in a new documentary called "The Spy Behind Home Plate." Berg followed a winding path to the intelligence world. He earned degrees from Princeton and Columbia. And he toured the world playing on an all-star baseball team with the likes of Babe Ruth.

Aviva Kempner directed the film. She says Berg was recruited by the top U.S. intelligence agency at the time, the Office of Strategic Services - the OSS - because he was smart and quick on his feet.

AVIVA KEMPNER: He was both brilliant, but he also had languages. And let's face it, even though he's an older athlete - because he was already a coach - this was a man, you know, who could get out of places fast and knew Europe from all his travels.

You know, we talk a lot about not letting immigrants come to this country. But what's interesting to me is some of the most successful OSS participants were those who were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants because they knew the languages, they knew the customs of the countries they had left, and they could be easily drop backed in those places or interact there without raising suspicion.

GONYEA: So he's working for the OSS. I want to talk about one particular mission. This was during World War II. He was asked to attend a speech by Werner Karl Heisenberg, who was a German theoretical physicist and, most importantly, the head of the Nazi nuclear weapons project. Let's play a short clip from your film.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Moe went to the lecture, which was mid-afternoon, with a pistol in one pocket and a cyanide tablet in the other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And Moe Berg's instructions were to listen to what Heisenberg said very carefully.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That if Heisenberg talked about where they were with the atomic bomb and the progress they were making...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He was to take out the pistol they gave him and assassinate him on the spot.

GONYEA: Man, we're a long way from the ball diamond here. How did that play out?

KEMPNER: So Moe had been prepared by the OSS with a gun in his pocket and a cyanide pill to assassinate Heisenberg if he demonstrated any knowledge that the Germans were developing a nuclear bomb. And he not only listened to him at the lecture - and of course, if he had killed Heisenberg, he would be assassinated on the spot. But he decided to also talk to him more, which he did after dinner. And at that point he concluded that, in fact, the Germans were not as advanced. And the message went back to America and the Manhattan Project that we could go ahead and proceed.

So it was a very brave mission of Moe to conduct. And I think he was the perfect person because he can combine the right knowledge of German, he was cool on the spot, and he had briefed himself on physics. And I think there were few OSS spies that had the combination of those skills.

GONYEA: How do we ultimately measure Moe Berg's contributions to the war?

KEMPNER: You know, what's interesting is that Moe Berg never talked about what he did. He would be in many baseball games after the war in the press room with other writers, and they would say to him, Moe, what did you do? And he'd put a finger to his mouth and go shh, I can't talk about it.

So, you know, it's been years and years, and it's only now when OSS documents are declassified that we are finding out really Moe's contribution. I don't think it's an understatement to say that Moe's, both his work in nuclear espionage in Italy, but even more so finding out what Heisenberg knew or not was a crucial moment for America to know that OK, the Manhattan Project is way ahead of what they know in Germany and to go forward because, you know, at that time, we knew the Nazis were capable of anything.

Obviously they were capable of genocide. And my grandparents - three of my grandparents and sister died that way. But it was the - which is of course a big reason why I wanted to do this film. But also they - in the hands of Hitler, the nuclear bomb would have been a disaster for the world.

GONYEA: That was Aviva Kempner, director of the documentary, "The Spy Behind Home Plate." Aviva, thank you.

KEMPNER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.