Paul Rudd Plays Moe Berg, a Catcher Who Was Full of Secrets
Posted June 21, 2018 3:29 p.m. EDT
Moe Berg played 15 mostly unremarkable seasons as a catcher in the majors for various teams, retiring in 1939 with a mediocre career batting average of .243 and a paltry six home runs. About his only notable accomplishment was an American League record of 117 consecutive errorless games in the 1930s. This is hardly the stuff of big-screen biopics. But factor in his exploits in intelligence during World War II, and the draw becomes much clearer. Still, Paul Rudd’s biggest challenge in playing him wasn’t mastering skills behind the plate or in hand-to-hand combat.
“It was trying to figure out who this guy was,” said Rudd, star of “The Catcher Was a Spy,” the new biopic about the athlete. “I did as much research as I could, but I didn’t have a clear idea. Ultimately, I had to pick a lane.”
The athlete turned secret agent’s shifting persona intrigued the screenwriter Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”), who adapted Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 biography, “The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg,” for the movie, which will open Friday. “Berg liked to create ambiguity,” Rodat said. “And the film, to some degree, creates ambiguity about his choices.”
Berg’s public image was largely defined by his intellect — he studied foreign languages at Princeton and the Sorbonne and law at Columbia — which made him a sportswriter’s dream. He earned the nickname Professor Berg as well as a string of attention-grabbing appearances on the popular radio quiz show “Information Please.”
Intelligence was what the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the CIA) wanted when it recruited Berg in 1944 and asked him to determine if the physicist Werner Heisenberg was close to developing an atomic bomb for the Germans. Berg’s diamond career may have been the perfect preparation.
“Baseball is all about espionage,” said George F. Will, the Washington Post columnist who’s known as much for his political coverage as for his love of baseball. “Catchers are being spied on all the time — that’s why they hide their signals to the pitcher down in their crotch.”
The movie’s director, Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”), extended the metaphor. “Baseball is a game of deception, secrets and strategy,” he said. “Moe’s role as catcher was, in a way, the head deceiver, so the skills he learned as a baseball player served him well as a spy.”
As an intellectual, Berg had something of a kinship with Heisenberg, who was considered the greatest scientific mind of his generation. But Berg was ready to carry out his orders and assassinate Heisenberg at a public lecture the two attended in Zurich in 1944 had it become clear that Germany’s nuclear program was nearing success. In the end — historical spoiler alert! — Berg didn’t kill Heisenberg, as the ex-catcher employed the same keen intuition he displayed on the baseball field.
“He sensed when a runner was going to steal, and even though Heisenberg was trying to hide it, Berg knew he was despondent because Germany didn’t have the bomb and was going to lose the war,” Rodat said. “That was the tell. Berg never understood himself, but he understood other people.”
Indeed Berg is a tricky subject for the biographer and the filmmakers. “He was someone who never stood still and was professionally enigmatic,” Dawidoff said. “He was shimmering, alluring and elusive, and those are qualities we often associate with espionage — and celebrities.”
Berg’s baseball career allowed him the rootless existence that he maintained his entire life; he never wed or had children. “The rhythm and calendar of the sport enabled him to live in the unique, solitary, itinerant way that really suited him,” Dawidoff said. “He experienced the country as a sort of de Tocqueville of baseball.” (Berg wrote “Pitchers and Catchers,” a 1941 essay for The Atlantic Monthly that is still one of the most insightful works ever penned about the game.)
His status as a confirmed bachelor led to rumors about Berg’s sexuality, and the film goes further than the book did in suggesting he was bisexual. “I never found evidence he had a gay relationship,” Dawidoff said. “It was no more than speculation.”
Rodat said: “The standards of veracity I applied in the movie were different. As a historian, when there’s smoke, there’s not necessarily fire. As a dramatist, when there’s a massive amount of smoke, there’s probably fire.”
Rodat and Lewin did their own research, interviewing people who knew Berg intimately. “He was a man who had secrets and knew how to conceal things,” Lewin said. “For us to have gone down that straight-washing path would have been a cop-out.”
Berg kept his sexuality close to the vest, but his ethnicity was proudly trumpeted in an era when Jewish baseball players like Hank Greenberg were relatively rare. “The fact that Berg was Jewish was a plus at the time, because baseball wanted to attract Jewish fans,” Lewin said.
Even though Berg wasn’t observant, his cultural background played a role in his decision to accept the anti-Nazi assignment. “Growing up in a family of Jewish immigrants” — Berg’s parents emigrated from Russia — “there was a strong pull of his religious heritage,” Dawidoff said. “He was constantly thinking about and confronting his religion.” That resonated with Rudd, who also comes from a Russian Jewish family. “If you’re Jewish, it’s just in the marrow of your bones,” he said. “It’s part of our identity.”
Still, the more the filmmakers dug into Berg’s story, the less they knew the man behind the catcher’s mask. “He operated behind a whole bunch of screens,” Rodat said.
As a result, “we didn’t delude ourselves into thinking we were going to solve the enigma,” Lewin said. “It may be frustrating, but it’s closer to the truth.”
Rudd felt as if he was playing more than one character. “He was an oddball and not forthcoming or gregarious,” he said. “Yet when you read some accounts, he was a total charmer. You wonder, ‘Is this the same guy?'”
Everyone involved with “The Catcher Was a Spy” agrees Berg was a hero, though. “I have no doubt that he exposed himself to real danger,” Lewin said. “When it comes to sheer guts, he had no shortage.”
Nevertheless, when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, Berg refused it, part of an increasingly inexplicable pattern of behavior that marked his postwar life. “In his last years, he was kind of a drifter,” Rudd said. Berg died in 1972 after a fall at the age of 70.
If we never really grasp who Berg was, that may be just what he desired. “He wasn’t someone who particularly wanted to be known,” Rudd concluded. “He found pleasure in the unknowable.”