There is something about scholarly Jewish athletes that excites the imagination.
I remember the first time I saw leaping, running teens on the basketball court of the summer camp I attended in White Lake, NY
Perhaps, I ever did a slow take.
My best friend up to that time had been my library card.
Nothing pleased me as much as having a book in my hand. I read everything I could find. If I was interested in a subject, I read the entire shelf.
My love affair with the library started with fairy tales when I was in third grade.
I read the Green Book of Fairy Tales, then the Red Book, then every color I could find. I read Nancy Drew mystery novels.
By sixth grade I was reading Dosteveski, Stendhal and many of the classics.
I read when I woke up in the morning, before I fell asleep. I read walking in the street. (Our neighbors told my mother that I was going to kill myself.)
I read histories, biographies.
At age 13, somewhat reluctantly, I found myself in a bucolic Catskill Mountains camp but continued to read whenever I could. One day, as we were forced to attend a basketball game, my reading was suddenly interrupted by swiftly darting, shorts-wearing, athletes.
I put down my book.
The other night, smiling at the memory, I made my way to a screening of award winning screenwriter, director and producer, Aviva Kempner’s new documentary, “The Spy Behind Home Plate”, the story of Moe Berg, a mysterious, polyglot, Princeton magna cum laude graduate and Columbia Law School lawyer who not only was a major league shortstop, then catcher, but was a successful spy for the then OSS.
Kempner’s film celebrates the life of Moe Berg and all its complexities. He was for all intents and purposes, a Jewish Errol Flynn, a handsome, daring, successful athlete/genius. The movie features a great deal of film and many photographs of Berg but very little audio. Apparently, Berg gave few interviews. “The Spy Behind Home Plate” includes numerous witnesses to and participants in Berg’s life and achievements, including, his brother, as well as professional ball players and intelligence officers
He was 6’1”, a naturally gifted sportsman who was fluent in 10 or 11 languages, including Sanskrit, could understand enough physics to engage a German scientist in 1944 in Switzerland to determine whether Germany was working on an atomic bomb.
As a ballplayer, Berg was an extremely private man in an extremely public profession.
As an intellect, he had few peers.
Inexplicably, after the war ended, despite his accomplishments and talents, his life seemed to end. He was only 43 years old.
He lived with brother, then his sister in New Jersey. He was unemployed.
He died in 1972 aged 70 of a heart attack.
But for more than a moment, Moe Berg and his powerful arm, his ability to read pitchers, players, the game, his courage, and creativity as an intelligence agent, was like one of those medical school bound, glistening youths I encountered sweating in the setting upstate sun, refusing to concede, playing until the last moment.