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Moe Berg Batted .243 for the White Sox and 1.000 for America

Among the many colorful characters who became spies during World War II, no one was more unusual than Morris “Moe” Berg. Tall, handsome, charismatic, and erudite, a professional baseball player, lawyer, scholar, linguist, and spy, Berg was a modern-day Renaissance man who embodied the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.

“He can speak twelve languages but can’t hit in any of them.”

Moe Berg possessed degrees from Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the Sorbonne. He was fluent in at least a dozen languages and could hold his own in conversations ranging from a discussion of Sanskrit verb forms with British politician Anthony Eden, to the mechanics of throwing an effective curve ball with soldiers, to the physics involved in splitting the atom. The only career in which he was mediocre was baseball. Chicago White Sox teammate Ted Lyons said, “He can speak twelve languages but can’t hit in any of them.” And an early scouting report of him became a classic: “Good field, no hit.” Even so, Berg, a lifetime .243 hitter, triumphed, carving out a seventeen-year career (fifteen as a player).

Moe Berg

Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg attempts to tag an unknown Cleveland Indians base runner at home plate during an Aug. 4, 1937 game at Fenway Park, Boston, Mass. Berg went on to a successful espionage career for the U.S. during World War II. Boston Public Library photo

Regarding his erudition, it’s a rare individual, let alone a professional athlete, who can make the sort of comparison that Berg did in “Pitchers and Catchers,” his article for the September 1941 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Of power pitcher Lefty Grove, then nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, Berg wrote, “[W]hen his speed began to fade, Lefty turned to his head. With his almost perfect control and the addition of his forkball, Lefty now fools the hitter with his cunning. With Montaigne, we conceive of Socrates in place of Alexander, of brain for brawn, wit for whip.” Yup.

But Berg’s eclectic background was what his nation needed, first for the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, and later for Col. William “Wild Bill” Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA.

Moe Berg’s foray into espionage began in 1934, when he accompanied a group of baseball All-Stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on an exhibition tour of Japan. Fluent in Japanese, he gave lectures at universities and, with a 16mm movie camera, like any other tourist, he took home movies. One day he visited St. Luke’s International Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo, ostensibly to pay a visit to the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Japan who had just given birth. But Berg never stopped at her room. Instead, he went to the top of the building and took a series of panoramic movies of Tokyo. After America entered World War II, Berg screened this and other movies he took during that trip for military intelligence officers planning the Doolittle Raid on Japan in 1942.

“I see Berg is still catching pretty well.”

After a brief stint with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, where he gathered a wide variety of intelligence during trips through Central and South America, Berg joined the OSS in August 1943. His first assignment was an evaluation of partisan groups in Yugoslavia. His report helped swing American support to Tito and his organization.

Berg was then assigned to Project Larson, a secret mission designed to kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists out of Italy. Within Larson was an operation called Project AZUSA, focused on Germany’s atomic bomb program. As part of Project Larson, Berg succeeded in getting Italy’s great aeronautical engineer Antonio Ferri to defect. When President Roosevelt received the news, he commented, “I see Berg is still catching pretty well.”

But it was within AZUZA that Berg made his greatest intelligence triumphs. One success was a detailed interview with an Italian physicist. The urbane Berg charmed the initially suspicious scientist with a captivating discussion of the poetry of Petrarch, whom the physicist admired. Three days later, the physicist was talking freely. Disguised as a German officer, he obtained extensive intelligence about Germany’s atomic bomb development centers. And, posing as a physics student, he attended a lecture in Switzerland by Werner Heisenberg, the leader of Germany’s atomic bomb program. Berg had instructions to kidnap or assassinate Heisenberg if he discovered Germany was close to building an atomic bomb. Upon learning that Germany was far from doing so, Berg let Heisenberg return safely to Germany.

Moe Berg

Boston Red Sox catcher Moe Berg chats with Washington Senator Joe Kuhel. Berg was fluent in at least a dozen languages and could chat with just about anyone. Boston Public Library photo

So great was his contribution to the war effort that after the war’s conclusion, Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian decoration. But Berg declined the medal.

Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian decoration. But Berg declined the medal.

Berg thereafter became a man of mystery, living a close-mouthed, eccentric, and vagabond life, eventually passing away at age 70 in 1972.

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...

  • Donald L. Wolberg

    Moe Berg is at once fascinating as an amazingly accomplished person of huge intellectual capability, but also frustrating because the “person” that he was seems to be so submerged as to be unapproachable. At best a very good defensive ballplayer, his inability to hit and injuries hindered his baseball career. World War II seems to have given him the impetus to use talents few others had and a peculiar usefulness as a spy. Part of his “strangeness” was the fact that he seemed to be in places and with people so significant as to be almost scripted. The two biographies of him that I have read are both inadequate and seem to miss the essence of the man or the “why” of his travels and life. For example, he spoke Japanese and was on a baseball tour of Japan before World War II with stars like Babe Ruth. And Berg dresses in Japanese clothes, smuggles in a movie camera, and manages to get on to the roof of a major Japanese hospital and films the harbor and ships he sees, BEFORE the war. His life after the war is even stranger, and why he is listed on a wall at CIA headquarters, is yet to be explained.

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    I had never really read about Berg, but after reading this piece and doing a little research I definitely want to know more. His biography truly is hard to believe, but the most unbelievable aspects are true! It leads you to lean toward believing all the rest.

  • Donald L. Wolberg

    Morris “Moe” Berg, the person, is as elusive as any good fiction spy thriller. One is tempted to wonder if what we see is real or what they wanted us (us in the sense of whoever at the time was watching) to see. I have two biographies of Berg: “Moe Berg Athlete, Scholar,Spy,” by Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald and Tom Sewell (1974) and published just two years after Ber died at 70. “The Catcher Was a Spy,” written by Nicholas Dawidoff, was published in 1994. Berg’s association with Nelson Rockefellar and the fact that he seems to have known Franklin Roosevelt make for lots of speculation. The Princeton connection leads to meetings of Berg and Albert Einstein.and others. Tom Powers wrote a really interesting book “Heisenberg’s War,” (1993), the great physicist who chose to stay in Nazi Germany. The Allies were fearful that Heisenberg was working on a Nazi bomb and Berg was sent to look at the possibility of assassinating Heisenberg.Berg engineered a private conversation with Heisenberg, considered by America to be. “the most dangerous possible German in the field because of his brain power…” (Powers, 1993). Berg apparently had the authority to assassinate Heisenberg if he determined that the German’s were close to getting the bomb. All this makes this scholar, baseball player, linguist, spy almost unbelievable.