He was probably the best educated professional baseball player in history, with degrees from Princeton and Columbia University, which at the time was quite an accomplishment given that he was a poor Jewish kid from the inner city at a time when antisemitism kept Jews out of prime schools in America. His expertise lay in Romance Languages and he was fluent in Latin, classical Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese and believe it or not, Sanskrit. Some claim he spoke 18 languages. Let’s not forget this descendant of Russian Jews who immigrated here also spoke Yiddish.
He began his career with the Brooklyn Robins ( later they became the Dodgers) but because of his poor hitting, he was sent to the minor leagues in 1924. By 1926 he returned to the Major Leagues and played catcher for the Chicago White Sox. He was a pretty good catcher and batted .287 by 1930 when this perspicacious prodigy received votes for most valuable player. While playing baseball he finished second in his law class at Columbia. During his fourteen years as an athlete, he played with the Washington Senators, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, and toured Japan with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig. He was so deft at languages that he managed to deliver an eloquent speech at Meiji University in 1934. By then his baseball career was over with a knee injury.
Few were aware that the US government had recruited this linguistic aficionado to spy on Japan. He learned most of his Japanese during a series of tours that American baseball teams made to teach the Japanese how to play. In the late 1930s, Berg made his way into a Japanese hospital masquerading his trip as a visit to an American woman who had just given birth and he secretly ascended to the roof where he took photos of Tokyo. These photos that were later used to bomb the city after hostilities broke out. After a meeting and a speech to the Japanese legislature, in Japanese of course, he actually made a radio broadcast to the Japanese people and beseeched them not to take up arms against the United States because they would not win. There were Japanese citizens in the audience who knowing that Japan had take the path to imperialism and continued war, openly wept at the broadcast.
He began spying for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor organization to the Central Intelligence Agency and traveled to Europe and moved among Nazis without detection. It’s not easy to forget that he was brilliant. It might be easy to forget that he was brave, and would have met a horrible reprisal had the Nazi or Soviet intelligence services been aware of his activities. He met with Yugoslav authorities to ascertain the strength of the various resistance movements and determined that Tito had a robust and active insurgency. This would later serve Allied forces plying information about Nazi troop movement and war planning.
The athletic scholar’s volunteer work for the US was driven by his hatred of Nazism. During his clandestine duties he confirmed that the Nazis were indeed building an atomic bomb, much to the chagrin of the Roosevelt administration. He identified a factory in Norway that was producing parts for the bomb and another in Germany that was trying to create fissionable material. Both of these targets were bombed by Allied air forces in the subsequent weeks. He also identified several Jewish nuclear physicists that were picked up by the United States in Operation Paperclip before the Soviet Union captured them. There is one chapter to this Renaissance man’s life that is very telling.
Moe Berg had to teach himself enough physics to pass as a physicist. Imagine the onerous task that would be to anyone especially considering that his strength was in languages. One of the great questions of World War II was why Werner Heisenberg, a Jewish Quantum physicist would help Hitler develop the atomic bomb. Theories abound that the reason Germany did not develop the bomb before the US was that Heisenberg impeded the process. But he was no votary of Germany’s form of Fascism. He was a scientist and the Nazis provided him with every comfort and resource he needed to achieve this goal. In December 1944, Berg sat and listened to Heisenberg deliver a lecture and managed to lure him into a conversation after dinner. With a gun in his pocket and a cyanide pill just in case, Berg stood ready to kill Heisenberg. During the conversation Heisenberg lamented that the German program lagged far behind the US and the Russians.
Berg could not find it in himself to kill this man. People may wonder for the motivation behind this convivial turn. Perhaps he was charmed by Heisenberg’s approach to physics. Perhaps he simply could not take another man’s life. He telegraphed the OSS the essential heart of Heisenberg’s comments. Roosevelt breathed a sigh of relief and commented to one of his generals “Let’s pray Heisenberg is right, and congratulations to the catcher.”
Berg’s father thought baseball was a distraction and a waste of time and lambasted him for it. But Moe lived life differently and baseball made him happy. He lived his life. Berg spent the remainder of his time living as a sort of vagabond, essentially relying on the favors of friends, an enigma. His remains are buried in Jerusalem near Mount Scopus, though no one knows exactly where. He left nothing behind but his incredible tale.
(1994). The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg. New York: Vintage Books.