One night, several years ago, my father and I were having a nice family dinner at McDonald's
and discussing sports. We were arguing over who was the coolest baseball player ever, and somehow my dad pulled a trivia tidbit out of the back of his head. "There was some guy who played for the Red Sox who was a spy
in World War II
, I think." So began my sordid journey into the history of Moe Berg.
Being a nerdy, anti-social, glasses-wearing, baseball-loving Jew myself, I would definitely cast a vote for Moe as the coolest baseball player ever.
Because Berg kept his private life and his sports life so separate, I have decided to write them up in two separate sections. The account of his life in sports comes second. At the end is a collection of some interesting anecdotes, just little funny stories about Berg.
I wrote this biography using Nicholas Dawidoff's excellent book The Catcher Was A Spy and information found at the following websites:
The Life of Moe Berg
Morris Berg was born on March 2, 1902. His father, Bernard Berg, came to America
from the tiny Ukrainian
town of Kippinya in 1894. When Bernard first traveled to the United States
, he didn’t like what he saw. He went to England
because he’d heard that citizenship would be given to anyone volunteering to serve in the Boer War
. When he arrived in London
, he was told the offer had been rescinded four days earlier. Undaunted, Bernard simply shipped out on a New York
-bound freighter, earning his passage by shoveling coal in the engine room. Once he reached New York, he took an ironing job on Manhattan
’s Lower East Side. Almost immediately, he began saving money. Soon, he owned his own laundry and was taking evening classes at the New York College of Pharmacy. In 1896, Bernard sent for his fiancée, Rose Tashker, from a village near his hometown. In 1900, their first son, Samuel, was born in a back room at the laundry. Soon after came a daughter, Ethel, and their youngest, Morris. Morris was immediately and forever called Moe, a small nickname for a twelve-pound baby.
At three and a half, Moe begged his mother to be sent to school, “like Sam and Eth.” His aunt Sophie instructed her sister-in-law to dress the boy and send him off to school. At around the same time Moe started school, his father bought a pharmacy on Warren Street in Newark. He operated there until 1910, when he bought a building in the Roseville section of Newark. Roseville was a Christian, middle class neighborhood with good schools - very close to Bernard’s idea of perfection. Although Bernard was raised as an Orthodox Jew and spoke fluent Hebrew, he didn’t think highly of religion. Sam would later write that his father thought “to be polite, religion is a bunch of equine droppings.” Bernard’s children had no formal introduction to Judaism of any sort. In fact, he banned Hebrew from his home. Still, they were Jews, and Moe later learned how important this really was when he attended a mostly Catholic high school and went on to Princeton, which is almost exclusively Christian.
The family lived in an apartment above the pharmacy in Roseville until Bernard died. He worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. His family communicated with him from the apartment through a speaking tube. Rose occasionally worked behind the counter, but Bernard never asked his children to work for him. In fact, he encouraged them to study. The only time a Berg child was ever told to spend any time in the pharmacy was when Sam pulled out his harmonica - and was always promptly sent downstairs to play inside the soundproof telephone booth.
From a very young age, Moe loved playing ball. Even as a toddler, he would badger Sam to play catch with an apple or orange. When he got a little older, he befriended a neighbor patrolman who could sometimes be urged to take a break from his patrolling for a game of catch. It wasn’t long, though, before he was sneaking out from his studies to play baseball all day with neighborhood boys at a nearby vacant lot. At one point he adopted the slightly less ethnic pseudonym Runt Wolfe and joined the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church baseball team. He also loved to go watch the Newark Indians, an International League team, and their star, the ex-New York Giants pitcher “Iron” Joe McGinnity.
Moe attended Barringer High School, one of Newark’s best. He played third base on the varsity baseball team. In 1918, the Newark Star-Eagle selected a nine-man dream team from the city’s best prep and public high school players. Said the newspaper, “Third base on the mythical team is taken care of by Berg of Barringer. If size were to count in choosing this team, Berg probably would have been overlooked when it came down to a choice for ‘substitute water carrier.’ But Berg, in spite of his four feet and some odd inches, is a crackerjack in scooping them up around the dangerous corner. He has an arm like a whip and is a steady batter.”
After he graduated with honors from high school in 1918 at the age of 16, Berg entered New York University. He spent two semesters there and played baseball and basketball. Not much is known about Moe’s time there, including why he left. He applied to Princeton, was accepted, and enrolled as a freshman in September 1919.
Even after growing up in a middle-class Christian neighborhood, Princeton was a new experience for Berg. Most of the 211 members of the Class of 1923 were the children of wealthy Christians, prep school graduates who spent their free time reading the New York Times, playing bridge, watching football games, going to dances, and attending chapel at least every other Sunday. Being the Newark-bred son of immigrants and “a Hebrew,” as the Class of 1923 yearbook described Berg underneath his senior picture, was a little different.
It’s unclear exactly how Berg felt about his experience at Princeton. He found it enormously appealing, yet it made him distrustful as well. “I’d say he was a loner. He had very few intimate friends. There weren’t many Jewish people at Princeton. As a group they were kind of looked down upon,” said Crossan Cooper, Berg’s double play partner on the baseball team. At Princeton, Berg ran into a kind of prejudice that he had never encountered back in Roseville. The discrimination was so strong that one Jewish classmate hid his faith and pretended to be a Christian. When he revealed the truth after graduation, his standing fell several levels.
Berg, however, did not attempt to hide his faith. In fact, when a group of Jewish students asked him to preside at Friday night services, he readily agreed. Princeton hadn’t made a believer out of him, though. The services were a ruse. Mandatory biweekly chapel attendance and the absence of Sunday morning rail service from New York and Philadelphia meant that, for half the time, students were trapped on campus for the weekend. But an exception was made for non-Christians. “The weekend problem,” said Howard Baer, a Jewish classmate, “was solved!”
Berg was one of the few Jews invited to join an eating club - with one condition: that he would not press for the admission of any other Jews. A candidate had to be there for your name to come up. When it came time for his name to come up, Berg left campus. Later, he said, “I was too proud of being a Jew to allow them to bandy my name about.”
Although Berg didn’t enjoy the social Princeton, he felt much more comfortable at the Princeton that was one of the nation’s best academic institutions. He was good friends with many of his professors. In 1923, the Newark News headlined a story about him with “Berg to Pass Out of Princeton This Week with Fine Record in Classes and Afield.”
He graduated on June 29, receiving his bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude in modern languages. Berg studied seven languages at Princeton: French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, Sanskrit, and Spanish, doing well in all of them. The modern languages department went as far as to offer him a teaching position, but Berg declined. He planned to attend law school eventually, his father’s wish, but first he wanted to travel.
All he wanted at graduation time was to spend some time in the places where people spoke all those languages he’d been learning. It would cost money to travel to Europe, but fortunately, he had a high paying summer job waiting for him in Brooklyn. Before signing with the Robins, though, Berg was hesitant. Maybe he should listen to his father, let go of childish games, and go to law school.
The turning point for Berg was a conversation with Dutch Carter, a former Yale pitcher who gave up baseball for law school. “Take the baseball career,” Carter advised. “The law can wait. When I was your age, I had a chance to pitch in the National League. But my family looked down on professional sports and vehemently opposed my accepting. I’ve always been sorry I listened to them, because it’s made me a frustrated man. Don’t you become frustrated. At least give it a try.”
After his first baseball season with the Brooklyn Robins, Berg left for Paris in early October. He soon found an apartment in the Latin Quarter and registered with the Sorbonne. For 32 francs and 50 centimes ($1.95), the registration fee, he received a card entitling him to attend as many courses as he wanted. His workload included five history courses, eight classes in French and Romanic linguistics, five classes in French literature, a class on the history of Italian literature, one on comic drama, and a study of Latin during the Middle Ages. He ended up taking 22 classes.
Even with all those classes, he found himself with a great deal of extra time on his hands. He wrote to his family that just to “walk for several hours was exhilarating.” He visited the Louvre, wandered through the Tuileries, spent time at the huge produce market at Les Halles, drank beer in cafés, went to the theater often, and even stepped into a Mass at Notre-Dame. He also developed a habit that would last the rest of his days: newspaper reading.
Each morning he would stroll to the newsstand, coming back with L’Oeuvre, Le Temps, Journal des débats, Le Figaro, L’Action française, Le Gaulois, Echo de Paris, Le Libertaire, L’Humanité, and even the scandal sheets. Later, in Boston, he would read the Globe, the Evening Transcript, the Post, the Herald, the American, the Record, and the Traveler. When he was in Chicago, he had papers shipped from New York.
When he was in New York, he would have newspapers arriving from all directions - French papers, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, a paper from San Francisco or Los Angeles, the New York papers, the Washington Post, the London papers, and the Manchester Guardian. Berg was stubborn about keeping papers until he read them, and sometimes he acquired them so fast, he fell far behind in his reading. No matter - he set them in stacks on any available surface. When he was traveling, he would take a separate straw suitcase to carry all his newspapers. Upon arrival, there would be a boy with an armful of papers to replenish his stock.
In 1926, after his phenomenal season with the Reading Keystones, Berg decided to follow his father’s hopes and go to law school. When he told the White Sox of his decision in August, after their exercised their option, no one believed him. They took him more seriously in early March, when he announced to the press that he would miss spring training and the first two months of the season to complete his first year of law school. The press and his fellow players did not think well of this decision. When he returned, he was lambasted in the local papers for every small mistake.
Berg explained his motives in a letter to Asa Bushnell, a Princeton alumni coordinator. “I have always considered the game only as a means to an end, because of its uncertainty,” he wrote, “and the means are very important to me at this stage of life. It was a faster and more enjoyable way than any other to enable myself to finish my academic education and now a profession.”
At Columbia Law School, in February of 1927, Berg exchanged letters with Charles Comiskey, the president and owner of the White Sox. Comiskey was notorious as a cheapskate and prone to condescension with ballplayers. When Berg contacted him to request permission to again report late for spring training, Comiskey wrote back smugly. “My Dear Young Man,” he wrote, “The time has come when you must decide as to the profession you intend following. If it is baseball, then it is most essential and important to the club and yourself that you report for spring training. Whether or not you decide to play baseball, the Chicago Club must continue, so you may rest assured that whatever action you take will make no difference to us.”
Berg wrote back, unconvinced, and Comiskey’s next letter resorted to a significantly less subtle form of persuasion: cold, hard cash. “A player reporting after the season has opened naturally is way behind the other players - as was the example in your own case last year,” Comiskey reasoned. This said, he then added, almost casually, that “should you decide that you would report for spring training, I might tender you a contract with an increase over the contract which you now have in your possession.” Berg still didn’t bite, and the White Sox went to Shreveport without him.
That didn’t mean he was happy with the situation. Berg later told a friend that he then felt that he had come “to the cross roads. It apparently would have to be baseball or law. Which? I loved the game and hated to quit.” Desiring, as always, to keep his life compartmentalized, Berg hadn’t told any faculty members about his summer job. Very few students knew about his situation, either. However, one day in May, his dilemma unexpectedly resolved itself.
He called on Professor Noel Dowling in his office to discuss a lecture. Berg found Dowling reading the sports pages and chuckling. Looking up at Berg, he said, “Great game, this baseball. You ought to get interested in it.” Dowling explained that he had played first base for Vanderbilt. “Professor,” said Berg, “I played shortstop for Princeton.”
“Are you the Berg from Princeton?” asked Dowling. And with that, out tumbled Berg’s quandary. Dowling was understanding. He advised Berg to take the extra classes in the fall, and helped arrange with the dean a leave of absence for the following year. However, crowding a year’s work into one semester in the fall may have had its strain on Berg. He failed evidence and did not graduate with the class of 1929, although he did pass the New York State bar exam later that spring. After the 1929 season, he repeated the evidence course. This time he passed, and he received his LL.B. on February 26, 1930. At spring training in San Antonio, he told Newark reporters, “I am in the pink.”
On May 2, 1930, a notice appeared toward the end of Edward Burns’ White Sox story in the Chicago Tribune. “If anybody in Chicago knows how Moe Berg, the first-string catcher now laid up in Chicago, is getting along, will they please communicate with the ball club.” After shearing his knee ligament, Moe Berg had vanished. He had been at Saint Catherine’s convent, where the nuns had been nursing him back to health. However, after a month there, he quietly disappeared to Newark, where his brother Sam, now a doctor, was fixing up his knee.
After an attempt to return to the lineup in 1931, Berg decided it was time to look for some real work. In October of 1931, Berg began his legal career in Manhattan with Satterlee and Canfield. Satterlee and Canfield - now Satterlee, Stephens, Burke & Burke - was a respected Wall Street firm that was the collaboration of Herbert Satterlee, J.P. Morgan’s son-in-law, and George Canfield, a distinguished Columbia law school professor.
When it came to hiring associates, the firm chose exclusively from the graduating law schools at the Harvard, Yale, and Columbia law schools, and the choices were usually Protestants. It was a plum job for Berg to land. The firm has no records from Berg’s day, and knows of no one living who might have worked with him, but Berg’s career there could not have lasted more than three or four winters. It probably paid very well, but it left him restless.
In 1922, a group of professional American baseball players visited Japan. Baseball had been a craze in Japan since 1872. One of the players who came on that 1922 visit was a utility infielder named Herb Hunter. Hunter observed that the Japanese approached baseball with zeal, but they knew nothing of the subtleties and complexities that make baseball so much more than a simple game. He saw opportunity. Hunter reasoned that American major league players would make excellent instructors. In 1931, the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun asked Hunter to assemble an American all-star team to tour and play exhibition games against Japanese college teams.
The team that Hunter brought, which included Lefty O’Doul, Mickey Cochrane, and Lou Gehrig, hit .346 in 17 games. They also stirred up the Japanese public. The next year, Hunter again brought American players. But this time, he didn’t bring a team. He hired O’Doul to teach hitting, fielding, and base running, Ted Lyons to teach the pitchers, and Moe Berg to work with the catchers.
Berg spent most of the two and a half weeks aboard ship in his cabin memorizing a small Japanese grammar book. He did not, as the American press liked to claim, become fluent on the trans-Pacific voyage, but he did grasp more Japanese than most American tourists. He also learned to write some characters in katakana, Japan’s phonetic written alphabet. His effort delighted his hosts, who called him “Scholar Berg, the Linguist.” On October 20, their ship docked.
Two days later, the ballplayers began their circuit of Tokyo’s Six-University League, which included the Meiji, Waseda, Rikkyo, Teidai, Hosei, and Keio universities. The Americans spent five or six days at each school. Berg enjoyed coaching, but he mostly regarded the trip as an excuse to explore Japan. Everything there was new for him, and Japanese culture immediately fascinated Berg. He slept on a tatami mat, wore a kimono, survived two mild earthquakes and a typhoon, stood in a crowd with thousands of Japanese for a glimpse of the emperor, and ate sushi with chopsticks and learned about the accompanying cacophony of appreciation good manners required. “You must inhale it with the noise of a steel-mill at full blast, sound your p’s and q’s, dot your little i’s, cross your t’s and then when the food or drink has passed your gullet, you exhale a sound of satisfaction,” he explained in a letter home.
After finishing his coaching duties, Berg continued on. “I have decided to see it all . . . may never have the chance to see it again,” was his reasoning when he wrote home to ask for money. First, he headed off with a friend he made at Meiji to tour the country, visiting Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Beppu. Vowing to stay in touch with his friend, he pressed on alone through Manchuria. He toured Shanghai and Peking, stood at the Great Wall, and then went on to Indochina. After touring the ancient stupas and spires of Ankgor Wat, he slept in the Cambodian jungle in a bed raised 6 feet off the ground to avoid snakes.
In Siam, he was discouraged from his regular evening walks by the locals, who informed him that it was mating season for “Mr. Tiger.” By New Year’s Eve he was in Bangkok, and his trip continued through India and the Middle East. He climbed a pyramid in Egypt, crossed the Sea of Galilee, saw the banks of the River Jordan, walked in the valley of Jehoshaphat, and made it to Berlin by January 30. A few weeks later Berg was in Newark, distributing kimonos, chopsticks, geta (formal wooden shoes) and a lamp for his mother. By February 26, 1933, he was in Biloxi, Mississippi, for spring training. It had been the happiest few months of his life.
Luckily for him, soon Herb Hunter would give him another chance to visit Japan. In October, Hunter assembled another all-star team to tour Japan. This time, he was able to get Babe Ruth, the star that the Japanese had been clamoring for. Along with Ruth, Hunter arranged for a flashy roster that included Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, and Lefty Gomez. Hunter thought back to 1932, remembered how well received Berg had been, and extended an invitation. Berg, of course, was overjoyed.
By 1934, Japan was openly at odds with the United States. They had withdrawn from the League of Nations and doubled their military budget within four years. Hostility and paranoia was rampant. In particular, there was a manic fear of spies stoked by the media. Every Brownie-toting foreigner was suspect. This overwhelming fear of spies piqued Berg’s sense of adventure.
Berg boarded the Empress of Japan in October with a leather case containing a contract with MovietoneNews, a newsreel production company, and a 16-mm Bell and Howell automatic movie camera. His first reel in Japan was of Ted Lyons and himself being treated to an evening at a brothel. He took the camera everywhere he went, shooting scenes on American trains and ballplayers boarding the ship in Vancouver, storms at sea and parties in Hawaii, Ruth dancing with his wife aboard ship and crowds greeting the boat in Yokohama. He recorded his teammates at play and at rest. He shot scenes of local Japanese culture.
Japanese troops, with the fear of spies rampant, obviously did not let Berg shoot everything he wanted to. But he had an uncanny knack for remaining unobtrusive and blending in. Taking pictures of the Tsugaru Strait, for example, was forbidden. Even Ruth was searched during their passage. But Berg somehow managed to photograph the Strait and get away with it. Toward the end of the trip he got even more daring.
In Tokyo, Berg decided to pull off the ultimate stunt to get perfect views of the Japanese skyline. He put on a kimono and a pair of geta, waved back his thick black hair, and parted it at the center. He bought a bouquet of fresh flowers and headed to Saint Luke’s Hospital. There had been a notice in the Japan Advertiser that the American ambassador’s daughter, Elsie Lyon, had just had a baby. Berg decided to pay Elsie and her new daughter a visit.
Buildings in Tokyo at the time had a height limit because of a decree that no man should be able to look down upon the emperor’s imperial palace. Saint Luke’s was over a mile away from the palace, so the seven stories and bell tower made Saint Luke’s one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. Berg entered the hospital and asked for directions in Japanese to Mrs. Lyon’s room. He was told to take the elevator to the fifth floor. He got in the elevator, went all the way up to the seventh floor and climbed a narrow staircase to the bell tower. There he found a stunning panoramic view of Tokyo. He took out the camera, which had been strapped to his hip beneath his kimono, and shot a 23-second pan of Tokyo.
Although he had some trouble in Korea and Siberia, he managed to make it back home with two reels of film intact. He never tired of telling stories of Japan and the East, entertaining benchwarmers and relief pitchers for years with his knack for spinning yarns.
However, Berg no longer seemed satisfied doing just that. In 1940, he told Arthur Daley, “Europe is in flames, withering in a fire set by Hitler. All over that continent men and women and children are dying. Soon we too will be involved. And what am I doing? I’m sitting in the bull pen, telling jokes to the relief pitchers.” In November of that year, he arranged an interview with Nelson Rockefeller through his old friend, Guatemalan diplomat Enrique Laccentopez-Herrarte.
In July 1941, Nelson Rockefeller created the OIAA. The purpose of the OIAA was to fan United States representatives throughout South and Central America to help the national defense by encouraging close bonds of friendship between neighbors. Nothing much came of Berg’s interview for a while, but in July 1941 Berg was invited to a discussion on the role of sports in the hemisphere defense program. By autumn, Rockefeller aides were telling Berg that they were “anxious” to hire him as a cultural ambassador to teach sports throughout South and Central America. On January 5, 1942, he accepted an OIAA assignment, agreeing to travel in South and Central American republics to monitor health and fitness, at a salary of $22.22 per day.
He finally left for the Americas on August 22. Before he left, he sent his films of Japan to the FBI offices. Medical Corps Captain Robert Rutherford sent Berg a note that said, “We were able to get more good from your movies than would have been accumulated over several months of looking through texts and travel magazines.” Berg spent six months in South and Central American hopping from military base to military base, evaluating morale and sending detailed reports back to Rockefeller.
When he got back to Washington, he was left without an assignment. Soon, he met a colonel named Ellery Huntington, who was working for a military branch called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS was the first American intelligence agency. It was modeled after England’s famous MI-6 intelligence corps. Huntington thought Berg was excellent OSS material. In June 1943, Berg resigned from the OIAA. He submitted his six-page OSS application on July 16. The first four pages of that application can now be bought on the Internet for $2500.
By August 2, he had agreed to an annual salary of $3,800 and taken the oath of office. He was quickly sent to the spy training camp in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. There, apprentice spies were tutored in silent killing, safecracking, bridge blowing, lock picking, code breaking, installing listening devices, and hand-to-hand combat, including eye-gouging, shooting to kill, and judo. Recruits were put through all sorts of ridiculous tests, such as being dumped miles from camp with just a compass and instructions to return while speaking to no one.
They also had to go through the OSS fun house, replete with dank, narrow passageways, sudden drops, and a surprise meeting with a papier-mâché Hitler, who they were supposed to kill on site. Berg failed the final training test, which was to slip inside a heavily guarded American defense plant and come away with classified information. Because this supreme test was more of a stunt than anything else, Berg was assigned to the Secret Intelligence branch of the OSS anyway and given a place at the OSS Balkans desk.
In Washington, Berg followed the movements of Peter, the exiled teenage king of Yugoslavia, monitored intelligence reports from the Balkans, reviewed mission proposals, and looked out for Slavic Americans whom the OSS had recruited and trained for high risk missions to rival factions of the Slav resistance. Being tied to a desk overseeing dangerous missions couldn’t have been easy for Berg, who craved adventure. In late 1943, he was finally assigned to a new project.
The project was Project Larson. The stated purpose of Larson was to sneak Italian rocket and missile experts out of Italy by boat and bring them to the U.S. But Larson was really just a smokescreen for a project within the project, filed under the name AZUSA.
AZUSA’s mission was to interview Italian physicists to see what they knew about Werner Heisenberg, a chief German scientist, and Germany’s progress on the atomic bomb. At that point, no one knew how far along Germany was with their efforts to build an atomic bomb. Back in the U.S., scientists at Los Alamos, New Mexico, were working around the clock to beat Germany to it. Several warning signs were leading the OSS to believe that Heisenberg was much farther along. On May 4, 1944, Berg boarded a military plane bound for Rome.
For four months, Berg traveled around Italy, endearing himself to Italian physicists. He chased Edoardo Amaldi, Enrico Fermi, Gian Carlo Wick, Antonio Ferri, Paolo Martinez and others all around Europe, attempting to get some information on Heisenberg’s progress and whereabouts. Gian Carlo Wick, a good friend of Heisenberg’s, told Berg reluctantly that he was living in a “wooded portion” of southern Germany, but would reveal nothing more. By the autumn of 1944, enough intelligence had been gathered for the OSS to declare that Heisenberg was living in Hechingen, a village on the edge of the Black Forest.
Suddenly, as OSS men were going through a sheaf of correspondence from Carl Friedrich von Weizsumlatacker to Heisenberg, they came across a letterhead with Heisenberg’s secret address and phone number printed on it. After all the effort expended looking for Heisenberg, now they could just call him up! Even more shocking, the correspondence included letters from Heisenberg admitting that he had no atomic bomb, and was not even close. Still, the OSS could not prove they weren’t phonies or plants, so the mission to sniff out Heisenberg went on.
On December 8, word came out of Bern that Heisenberg would give a lecture in Zurich on December 15. Berg was sent to Switzerland with specific instructions - take notes, be careful, and shoot Heisenberg if he says anything to indicate that Germany was close to completion of an atomic bomb. Berg had his pistol in one pocket and a lethal cyanide tablet in the other. During the lecture, Heisenberg made it clear that Germany was nowhere near developing atomic weapons. Berg even approached Heisenberg after the lecture and “pestered” him with questions in his Swiss-accented German, but there was nothing new to learn.
Just like that, Berg’s most exciting mission of his espionage career was over in one huge anticlimax. It is absurd, though, to think that it could have been any other way. If Heisenberg was supervising a bomb project, it seems unlikely that Hitler would have let him take a long public trip to Switzerland. Moreover, only the most active imagination can believe that Heisenberg, with his bomb nearly built, would tell a lecture hall full of foreigners. Finally, he was no longer that important to the project. “I have no doubt those were Berg’s orders and that he would have done it, but it would have made no difference,” says Phillip Morrison. “With our project you could shoot Fermi in 1944 and it would have made no difference. A year before the American bomb, 100,000 people were working on it. By 1944, Heisenberg was no longer very valuable.”
Berg stayed in Europe for the next year, doing odd jobs for the OSS that usually ended as wild-goose chases. When the war ended, the OSS was disbanded, and he went home. Berg spent the rest of his days reading, freeloading off his many contacts, and providing copy for sportswriters. In late May 1972, he fell out of bed and bashed his torso into a night table. A week later, it was discovered he was suffering from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, and he was bleeding to death. On May 29, 1972, he asked a nurse, “How are the Mets doing today?” and died before she could answer. He was 70. It was baseball to the last.
As a freshman at Princeton, Berg played first base on an undefeated baseball team. The next spring he joined the varsity team and switched to shortstop, where he started every game for the Princeton Tigers for the next three years. The coach, ex-big leaguer Bill “Boileryard” Clarke, told Berg that he ran so slowly that he’d “get to first base just as fast wearing snowshoes.” Clarke was right, but Berg compensated in the field with a strong throwing arm and solid baseball instincts. He never would be a power hitter, and at first he wasn’t even a very good one. He hit .235 as a sophomore and .230 as a junior.
Then, as a senior, something clicked. He hit .337 for the year. When Princeton played Holy Cross, he hit a double and scored the game’s only run, against future Detroit pitcher Ownie Carroll. That game was one of only two defeats that Carroll would suffer his entire college career. In the five games that year against Harvard and Yale, Berg hit .611 and hit a home run. For one game against Harvard, the Brooklyn Robins (soon to become the Dodgers) manager, Wilbert Robinson, sent his ace pitcher Burleigh Grimes out to Princeton to look at a pitcher. Grimes reported back to Robinson that the pitcher wasn’t much, but the Tigers had some shortstop.
In 1923, Berg’s senior year, New York City’s two National League baseball franchises were both in the market for a good Jewish player. Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw, the New York Giants’ manager, both knew about Berg and both wanted him. They liked his play at shortstop and they liked his blood. The team that could sign a talented Jew could draw many more fans from New York’s huge Jewish population.
McGraw was especially desperate. Attendance at the Polo Grounds was off by more than 130,000 tickets from the 1922 season. However, McGraw was an abrasive, domineering man. Robinson was a jolly man known as “Uncle Robbie.” Robinson also had something else going for him: a mediocre team. Brooklyn was weak at shortstop, while the Giants had two future Hall of Famers at the position in Dave “Beauty” Bancroft and Travis Jackson.
So on June 27, 1923, the day after he hammered a single and double in two at bats and made several amazing plays at shortstop in the Big Three championship game at Yankee Stadium, Berg received a $5000 signing bonus from the Brooklyn Robins. The next morning he took the team train to Philadelphia and joined the team for their afternoon game against the Phillies at the Baker Bowl.
In the 7th inning, with Brooklyn ahead 13-4, Robinson put Berg in. Berg handled five chances flawlessly, including a ninth-inning line drive by Cy Williams, which he converted into a game ending double play. Although he seemed “plainly a little nervous” at bat, he got a single up the middle in the eighth and later scored. He did well in his major league debut, but he didn’t become the Robins’ regular shortstop until August, when they were well out of pennant contention. Berg’s mother, Rose, delighted in the progress of her son the ballplayer. “Oh, she loved it, she loved it,” Sam Berg recalled years later. Berg’s father always stayed home, displaying his displeasure with Moe’s choice of career.
Berg, however, was not much of a shortstop. He was slow, increasingly erratic with his throws, and an overmatched hitter. He had an excellent arm, but he was beginning to give the ball an odd twist that interfered with his effectiveness. A typical game was like that on August 17, where he was 0-3 with an error. At the end of the season, he had played in 47 games, batted .186, and made 22 errors. He decided at that point that it was time to leave town. He packed up and left for Paris in early October.
By January, Berg was missing baseball. “Well, pretty soon the bell will ring again to hit the old apple and believe me I’m anxious to show all the gents that I can do it and have enough confidence in myself to believe that I’ll give ‘em all a good battle,” he wrote. Still, he didn’t hurry back to New York to get himself into shape in time for spring training. Instead, he toured Italy and Switzerland, and that cost him.
He sailed home from Europe in March of 1924. When he docked in New York, he visited his family briefly in Newark and then boarded the Florida Flier, bound for Clearwater, where the Robins’ training camp was located. Robinson watched Berg practice and saw that Paris had seasoned his French but lent nothing to his hitting, and optioned him to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association.
Berg didn’t take the demotion well. He muttered something about becoming a teacher of foreign languages, stormed out of the office, and bought a railway ticket to Newark. On the way home, however, he had a change of heart. No one hired teachers in the spring, he reasoned. Besides, most ballplayers spent some time in the minors. He reported to the Millers in mid-April. His tardy appearance and the fact that the team was loaded with infielders kept him waiting until June before he was given a turn as a regular starter. Again, he started well, batting .330 as the third baseman. In July, however, his average plummeted, and he was back on the bench until August 19, when he was lent to the Toledo Mud Hens for the rest of the season.
The Toledo fans were crazy about baseball. Unfortunately for them, the 1924 Mud Hens were a lavishly bad team. The infield was so thin that John Schulte, a catcher, had been turned (with poor results) into a second baseman. The shortstop was Rabbit Helgeth, whose inconsistent fielding matched his random behavior. As Berg arrived in Toledo, the team fined Helgeth $10 for poor play. He refused to play, was suspended, and Berg had a regular job. He did much for the club’s confidence.
The Toledo News-Bee ran an article headlined “Why the Mud Hens Are Playing Better Ball Now.” In it, the writer explained that “Moe Berg is not a great shortstop, and he has his bad moments, but he is such a great improvement over Helgeth that he has restored confidence among the Toledo players and they are now able to go through a game without the fear that the hole in the shortfield would eventually prove their undoing.”
Most of Berg’s bad moments continued to be at the plate. His average was a mediocre .264 by season’s end. After seeing him play early in his career, major league scout Mike Gonzalez filed a brief, remorseless account that was such a true description of Berg - and hundreds of ballplayers like him - that it lives on. “Good field, no hit” was the message in its entirety.
However, the next April, things seemed to have changed. He was now playing for the Reading, Pennsylvania Keystones, an International League team. In Reading, they called him “the Great Moe.” By early June the local newspapermen had called him everything from “the brilliant young shortstop” to “a revelation” to “the whole show.” The difference was his hitting. For most of the year, he hit the ball around Lauer’s Park with authority. On May 11, he had a double and two home runs against Syracuse. Eight days later he had five hits, including, amazingly, a triple, to beat Jersey City.
His successes and failures came in clumps. One June afternoon he made four errors and got as many hits, in an 8-5 victory over Providence. On June 11, he had what the Reading Eagle called “a disastrous afternoon at shortstop” in which Berg errors cost his team eight runs. But by the time July rolled around, Baltimore News baseball writer Roger Pippen was calling Berg and Keystones second baseman Heinie Scheer “the best double-play artists in the league.” The Keystones reached second place on June 20 for the first time in franchise history. Berg’s batting average was close to .340 by late July.
He hit three home runs in three days to finish the month, before a slump cooled him off. The Keystones cooled off with him, stumbling to 5th place, where they remained, for their highest finish ever. There was still something left in Berg, though. On September 20, he had eight hits in eight at bats in a doubleheader against Providence. No one in International League history had ever done that. He ended the year with a .311 batting average and 124 RBIs. The Chicago Cubs offered Reading $25,000 for Berg. However, Chicago’s South Side franchise, the White Sox, had earlier contracted with Reading for a $6,000 option on Berg, which they now exercised.
After skipping spring training and the first month of the season for law school, Berg joined the White Sox on May 28. In his absence the team had signed Bill Hunnefield to play shortstop. For much of the summer “Honey Boy” was a .300 hitter and Berg was a bench warmer. He ended up playing in just 41 games and hitting .221, only slightly better than his numbers with Brooklyn. His one moment of triumph came in the City Series, a post-season best of seven competition with the Cubs. In the seventh game, Berg hit a double off the left field wall at Wrigley Field to drive in the series-winning run. Irving Vaughan of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Moe Berg isn’t much of a hitter, but this was a game where a decorum meant over $300, so Moe hit one.”
Berg spent his first three months of the 1927 the same way he’d spent them in 1926, seated on the bench watching Bill Hunnefield play shortstop. In August, an unusual chain of events led to Berg’s earning of a starting spot. Ray Schalk, the White Sox manager, had been on the roster as a catcher since 1912. Occasionally, even at age thirty-five, he liked to play when his knees were willing. He chose July 21 as the date for one of his rare appearances, and he chose badly. Julie Wera of the Yankees scored only eight runs in his major league career, but he scored one on that day, when he ran over and injured Schalk.
The team’s regular catchers were Harry McCurdy and Buck Crouse. A few days after Schalk’s injury, Crouse split a finger in Philadelphia. The team moved on to Boston with only McCurdy left. The White Sox catchers seemed to be plagued by opposing players with short-lived major league careers and girls’ names. In the third inning of a game on August 5, at the end of Red Sox outfielder Cleo Carlyle’s only major league season, Carlyle collided with McCurdy.
Schalk was out of catchers. As he despaired over what to do, Berg piped in. “You’ve got a big league catcher sitting right here.” He was referring to backup first baseman Earl Sheely, who did some catching in the minor leagues, but Schalk didn’t know that. “All right, Berg, get in there,” he said. Obediently, Berg began strapping on a pair of shin guards and a chest protector. So began the catching career of Moe Berg.
Catching is extremely difficult, and it can also be dangerous. Berg is supposed to have said, “If the worst happens, kindly deliver the body to Newark.” There was no reason to worry. In his first game as a catcher since sandlot ball, he was terrific. In the next game, he made an excellent defensive play to keep the tying run from scoring.
A few days later, Chicago Tribune columnist Westbrook Pegler recapped the events of the last few days with joy. “The distinguished Corean philologist confessed that he was secretly a catcher all the time instead of a shortstop, as everyone thought him. He has been catching very nicely and Mr. Schalk feels faint stirrings of hope that some of his other players will confess to a secret accomplishment, preferably hitting. However, not to rely too strongly on a catcher who may only think he is a catcher, Mr. Schalk has engaged Mr. Frank Bruggy.” Bruggy never played an inning. Crouse’s finger healed easily, and Berg caught just eight more times in the last month and a half.
The next year, Berg spent three weeks before spring training in a lumber camp in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. He got into the best shape of his life there. Ed Burns of the Chicago Tribune reported, “Moe Berg, who is allaying culture with his passion to become a catcher, arrived this morning as per schedule . . . Moe being one of those lucky skinny devils who doesn’t have to worry about his victuals, reported in good physical condition, except that the bottoms of his feet are tender as a result of sitting around in libraries all winter.”
As a shortstop, Berg was always too slow. But catchers are notorious for trudging around the base paths. He had the necessary criteria for the position, too: a strong arm, soft hands, nimble reflexes, and brains. The White Sox never did trade for a catcher. Berg, McCurdy, and Crouse were to share the position.
By May, some pitchers began to request him. He also kept his batting average above .300 into September. Fans clamored for more Berg. Chicago fans honored him with a “Moe Berg Day” and raised a staggering $25,000. By comparison, the fans raised only $792 earlier in the season when pitcher Red Faber, who was playing his fifteenth season for the Sox, was honored with a day. Berg turned the money down, saying, “I’ve done nothing to merit it and besides, it would be an affront to a great player like Faber.” By the time the City Series rolled around again, the White Sox had bounced back to 5th in the eight game league, and Berg had ensconced himself as their starting catcher. In the City Series, he caught every game and batted .333.
The press was warming up to Berg, and with good reason. Baseball was at that point full of uneducated country boys. “Professor” Berg made good rainy day copy. Before the City Series, Ed Burns wrote a piece comparing him to future Hall of Fame Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett. Hartnett, he said, was the harder hitter, but both “are nifty dressers and single. They are deadly on high foul flies and throwing to second . . . the big difference between the two boys is that Hartnett drives one of the most costly of domestic cars, while Berg still clings to his boyish love for the bicycle. He can be seen riding every morning rain or shine in the vicinity of 53rd Street and Hyde Park Boulevard. Berg speaks from seven to twenty-one languages, while Gabby speaks but one - rock ribbed New England.”
The next year, the White Sox traded outfielder Bibb Falk to Cleveland for catcher Chick Autrey. Autrey and Crouse shared the catching into early June. The White Sox had sunk into 7th place, and on June 5 they lost to last place Boston 17-2, prompting Irving Vaughan of the Chicago Tribune to rant, “The White Sox are no longer comical, they are pathetic.” Berg caught the next day, throwing out two base runners and ekeing out two hits. Two days later he had two more hits, and then three, and then three more. Before he knew it, he had a starting job again.
Berg’s finest season progressed without many headlines, but on September 7, he was in the papers again for, of all things, stupidity. In the fifth inning of a game against Washington, there was a runner on third with the score tied 1-1 when the batter hit a foul pop-up. Berg moved back, caught the ball, threw it back to the mound, and began running back toward the dugout. But that made only two outs, not three, and the Washington runner scampered home to score the winning run. After that, Tommy Thomas delighted in telling Berg, “You can speak a dozen languages but you can’t count to three.”
The next year, much was expected of Berg after his best season yet in the majors. However, fate would not comply. On April 6, the White Sox played an exhibition game against the Little Rock Travelers. While he led off first base, Berg’s spikes caught in the dirt as he tried to change directions, and he felt a sharp pain in his knee. The next morning he was in Mercy Hospital in Chicago with a sheared knee ligament.
The 1930 and 1931 baseball seasons were lost. In mid May of 1931, Berg suddenly showed up in the White Sox clubhouse. He claimed he was sound in body, and was in the starting lineup on the twenty-third. That was foolish. With his knee still healing, the squatting alone must have been agony. He played only 20 games all summer and hit a humiliating .115.
In April, Chicago put Berg on waivers. The Cleveland Indians claimed him. The Indians already had three catchers, Luke Sewell, Glenn Myatt, and Joe Sprinz. Berg was a speculation - one that didn’t pan out. Arriving in Cleveland, Berg came down with bronchial pneumonia and got one hit all season. The Indians released him in January 1932.
Catchers were scarce that year, though, and Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, invited Berg to spring training in 1932. After starting catcher Roy Spencer injured his knee, Berg caught regularly. He played in 75 games for the Senators that year, and although he only hit .236, his defense made him an important member of the team. He threw out 35 base runners and made no errors. Walter Johnson, the Washington manager, said near the end of the season, “I would say that, barring Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane, Berg has caught as well as any man in the American league.”
In 1933, Luke Sewell was traded to the Senators, but Berg didn’t worry. His value had been proven. The Senators would win the pennant that year. Berg only played in 40 games and batted just .185. He spent most of his time in the bullpen spinning tales for the relief pitchers. In the World Series against the Giants, the Senators went down four games to one. Berg sat in the dugout, as Sewell caught every game.
In 1934, Sewell broke his finger in a spring training game, and Clark Griffith was left with just Berg as his starting catcher. On April 22, Berg went 3-4 as the Senators beat the Athletics. He also made his first fielding mistake since 1932. He had played 117 consecutive errorless games, breaking Ray Hayworth’s American League record. Hardly anyone noticed. In mid-June, Luke Sewell returned to the Senators. Ten days later, St. Louis pitcher Bump Hadley hit him in the head, returning him to the bench.
In the meantime, however, the Senators signed a talented rookie catcher to the team. Somewhere, someone had to give. It was Berg. On July 25, Griffith gave Berg his unconditional release. Berg’s retirement lasted four days. On August 1, Cleveland catcher Glenn Myatt broke his ankle sliding into a base. The third-place Indians needed a backup catcher badly. The manager was Berg’s old Washington friend, Walter Johnson. He offered the reserve job to Berg. He played occasionally throughout August, but he spent more time babysitting Johnson’s children. He ended with an average of .258 in 29 games, okay but nothing spectacular. When he returned from an off-season vacation, Myatt had healed and Berg was out of a job.
In April of 1935, the Boston Red Sox played an exhibition game in Newark, Berg’s hometown. Berg went to the ball park and told his old friend Joe Cronin that he was looking for work. Six days later, when the Red Sox opened against the Yankees, Berg was there on the bench.
The five years he played with the Bosox were entirely unremarkable. Berg played an average of just less than 30 games a season. One of the main reasons he was kept on the team was his close friendship with Joe Cronin. Cronin thought of him as some sort of a good luck charm. Not that he was just an ornament. If that were the case, Cronin would have made Berg a coach. (He eventually did.) Berg could catch, and he did it well. Lefty Grove and Jack Wilson would request Berg, just as Tommy Thomas and Ted Lyons had with the White Sox. Still, Berg spent much more time in the bullpen reading papers and regaling the pitchers with stories of his travels than he did catching.
On February 2, 1940, Joe Cronin made coaching Berg’s official position. Watching 152 games from the dugout suddenly seemed to make him restless, however. On January 15, 1942, Berg retired from baseball to work as a consultant for the Office for Inter-American Affairs. Although he worked in baseball for seven years in Boston, it would be the two and a half years spent in Washington that would have the most impact on the years ahead.
Moe Berg is the only person to have his baseball card
enshrined at the CIA
Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia
. He also is the subject of a display at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame
in Cooperstown, New York
Berg is supposed to be the journeyman
player with the most profiles ever written about him, including a series of “Professor Berg” columns in the New York Times
by John Kieran.
When Senators owner Clark Griffith invited Berg to spring training, a sportswriter for the Washington Post
asked some of the Senators what they thought of the invitee. He sidled up to outfielder Dave “Sheriff” Harris, and said, “I see you’ve got a new catcher, Sheriff. What kind of a catcher is he?” Harris, known for his hard line drives and hardhearted one-liners, replied, “We’ll find out tomorrow.” The sportswriter, pressing on, informed Harris, “I just want to tell you he speaks seven languages.” “Yeah, I know,” Harris retorted, “and he can’t hit in any of them.”
In Japan, where his knowledge of Japanese was far above that of his traveling partners, he used it to have a little fun. On the 1932 trip, Lefty O’Doul
was becoming frustrated with a waitress’s inability to understand his order. Berg scribbled some katakana (phonetic written Japanese characters) on his napkin and surreptitiously handed it to the waitress. “O’Doul ees ugliest mug I have ever seen,” she read aloud from his katakana. “He ees also lousy baseball player. Someday he weel get heet with fly ball and get keeled.” On the second trip, he visited a geisha house with Babe Ruth
. The subtleties of young women wearing heavy silk kimonos, performing ancient ritual ceremonies, was lost on Ruth. He pawed at one increasingly agitated woman every time she passed. Observing nearby, Berg wrote down some katakana characters and handed them to Ruth’s victim. The next time he groped for her, she paused, bowed, smiled sweetly, and said, “Fuck you, Babe Ruth
.” That, Ruth understood.
One day in 1934, Baltimore
attorney J. Kemp Bartlett decided to take his teenage daughter Marjory to a Senators game. He hailed a cab, and just as the Bartletts settled into the back seat, the front door on the passenger’s side opened and Berg popped in. “Mr. Griffith’s Stadium, did you say you’re going to Mr. Griffith’s Stadium?” he asked, climbing in. Bartlett was annoyed, but he let Berg stay. Berg tried to make conversation, asking if Bartlett was in the Bar Association
. Berg told him that he was a lawyer
too. Bartlett didn’t believe him. When the taxi got to the ballpark, Berg said “Thank you very much,” and disappeared into the crowd. Marjory said, “Daddy, he left without paying his share.” Mr. Bartlett replied, angrily, “That kind never does.” The Bartletts went into the stadium and got their seats, near first base and close to the field. When a pop fly
was hit in their direction, the catcher flipped off his mask and scrambled for it. Marjory gasped. “Daddy, that’s the man in the cab with us.” Bartlett said, “Hummm. I knew perfectly well he wasn’t a lawyer.” Of course, he was wrong. Berg was a lawyer.
In 1938, Berg appeared on the radio quiz show “Information, Please!” It was these appearances that really made him nationally known. He was dazzling, and NBC
received as many as 24,000 letters calling for his return. He would appear twice more.
One of Berg’s first coaching jobs was to work with rookie outfielder Dom DiMaggio
. At spring training, they roomed together. At one point, DiMaggio injured his ankle in an intersquad game. The next day, manager Joe Cronin and team owner Tom Yawkey
came to see how he was. Berg was out, but he had left his signature; the only chair in the room was covered with a pile of unread newspapers. Yawkey and Cronin decided to have a little fun. They scattered the papers all over the room and then escorted DiMaggio to the game. When Dom returned to the room, the papers were gone and Berg’s closet was empty too. There was a note: “Dominic, you have too many friends - my newspapers are too important to me.”
During his Red Sox years, the publishers of Who’s Who in Sarasota
sent him a form. He sent it back filled out as follows: Next to “Full Name” he wrote “Mohammed Montaigne”; his profession was “narcotics”; for “Birth Place” he wrote “Bed”; his “Wife’s Name” was “Venus de Milo”; under “Names of Children” he included “Abortia and Miss Karridge”; his “Winter And Summer Addresses” were simply the “Out of Town News Stand”; and under “Additional Data” he scribbled “Smyrna figs, disa & data & nuts to you.”
George Traister, owner of --------- in ------, wrote of Berg. “For a number of years in the 1960's we were visited by Moe Berg, a man who played in the Big Leagues as a catcher in the twenties and thirties. He had graduated from Princeton in the early twenties and while his grades showed that he wasn't very good in languages, he maintained an interest in them all his life. He apparently slept in the Washington, D.C. station, and then early in the morning caught the train to Philadelphia, arriving at our store about nine and spending the rest of the day reading books seated on a stool. He tried to regale me with stories of how he worked as a spy
in World War II
but I soon came to the conclusion that he was trying to give the impression that he was a spy when I couldn't believe it. I was in the Intelligence business myself and used to discourage his pretensions. He really had no money and was too lazy by now to work, having been in the OSS during the war. One day I took him to the Franklin Inn Club where he was recognized by several of the baseball addicts and this pleased him. Finally one day he broke down and bought a book for a dollar. It remains our only sale to a member of the sports world, justifying my not attending sports events.”