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