Moe Berg in his baseball playing days
For those of you who prefer to read Moe’s biography, Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg provides one of the few thoroughly documented accounts of a real spy’s life. If you prefer to listen to Moe’s story, there is a podcast on YouTube (64 minutes). Or, based on my many hours of research, I offer you the following shortened version of the mysterious life of Moe Berg…one of the best educated, intellectually accomplished and patriotic Jewish athletes in the history of American sports - and an American spy.
Morris “Moe” Berg was born in a cold-water flat on East 121st Street in Manhattan (Harlem) in 1902. His father, Bernard, came to Manhattan’s lower east side of New York in 1894 from the Ukrainian village of Kippinya. His mother, Rose, arrived two years later from a nearby town in the Kamenets-Podolski region of the Ukraine, not far from Romania. They knew each other in the “old country”.
Bernard worked in a laundry, saved whatever money he could, soon owned his own laundry and went to night school at the New York College of Pharmacy. Between 1898 and 1902 they had three children - a son, Samuel (1898), a daughter, Ethel (1900), and then Morris was born in 1902 after they had moved up-town to Harlem.
By then Bernard was a pharmacist and in 1906 he purchased a pharmacy in West Newark, New Jersey. Two years later he bought a building in a middle-class neighborhood of Newark and moved his pharmacy there. The family lived in an apartment above the pharmacy until he died. There were good schools and few Jewish families in that part of town. It was for the local Episcopal Church that Moe began to play organized ball. Being Jewish, he went by the pseudonym of Runt Wolfe. In high school Moe was a star third-base man and was only 16 when he graduated. He went to New York University and one year later transferred to Princeton University. Most of the students there were Protestants from wealthy families. Moe, being Jewish and not affluent, felt uncomfortable and became somewhat of a loner.
At Princeton Moe studied Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit. He ultimately, in his spy years, learned Japanese and Russian. Playing baseball for Princeton, Moe was a starter for three years, wound up as captain and was a star shortstop. A good student, he graduated with honors in 1923, gained popularity and was no longer a loner. After graduation Berg signed with the Brooklyn Base Ball Club (subsequently the Dodgers), where his star status faded. Simultaneously he entered Columbia Law School, attended classes in the off-season and got his law degree in 1930. However, baseball was his first love. In 1927 with the Chicago White Sox Moe became a catcher…a really good catcher. He could cut down the fastest base runners but his hitting was pathetic.
Moe on a Big League Chewing Gum card Photo: moeberggoudeycard-wikipedia.com
In 1934 Berg toured Japan with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Respected as a linguist, Moe was recruited as a spy by the U.S. government. He was invited to lecture at Meiji University, where he delivered an eloquent speech in Japanese. At one point he sneaked onto the roof of a Tokyo hospital and took photos of the city. The photos were used during bombing raids in World War II. In 1941, when America entered the war, Berg made a radio broadcast to the Japanese people. In fluent Japanese he pleaded, as a friend, for the Japanese to avoid a war they could not win. His address was so effective that several Japanese said afterwards that they had wept while listening.
After a stint as Goodwill Ambassador in Latin America, Moe returned to the U.S. to work for the O.S.S., Office of Strategic Services, which later became the C.I.A. - Central Intelligence Agency.
Moe Berg in World War II with Colonel Howard Dix of the OSS Technical Section. The OSS was the forerunner of the present CIA. Photo: www.fieldofdreams.it
He parachuted into Yugoslavia and met with the dictator Tito. As a result, Moe recommended that the U.S. back Tito instead of his Serbian rival.
Despite the fact that he was no scientist, Berg was then assigned to help determine how close Germany was to developing an atomic bomb. In short order Berg taught himself a lot about nuclear physics. Traveling through Europe, Berg found out that a factory in Norway was producing an atomic bomb component for the Nazis, and Allied planes bombed it. Berg also learned that the Nazis had an atomic research center at Duisberg, Germany, and it too was bombed.
Incognito, Berg managed to lure the leading German atomic physicist, Werner Heisenberg, to Switzerland to give a lecture on quantum theory. At dinner afterwards, Berg heard Heisenberg imply that Germany was behind the U.S. in bomb development.
President Roosevelt was informed of this and sent his regards “to the catcher”.
At great risk as a Jew, Berg spent some time in Germany during 1944 and 1945, helping to arrange the capture of several prominent German atomic scientists by U.S. troops before the Russians got them. Berg was offered the Medal of Merit, the highest award given to a civilian in the war effort, but he modestly would not accept it.
Moe lived a quiet life in Newark. Over the years he made some close friends, such as Al Schacht, a Red Sox coach, known to baseball enthusiasts as “The Clown Prince of Baseball” and Albert Einstein from his time at Princeton. Berg tried to teach Einstein baseball and Einstein tried to teach Berg physics. Anita Loos, the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was another of his friends.
Berg never married. He died on May 29, 1972, aged 70, from injuries sustained in a fall at home. His remains were cremated and the ashes were spread over Mount Scopus.
A song was written by Chuck Brodsky about Moe Berg. Chuck does the vocal and plays guitar for “Moe Berg’s Song”, which is available on YouTube.
Morris “Moe” Berg is the only Major League Baseball player whose baseball card is on display at the headquarters of the C.I.A. in Washington, D.C.