The Moe Berg Day Thread: Confessions of a Dangerous Catcher

Moe Berg was a major-league catcher AND a World War II spy for the Office of Strategic Services. He could be considered baseball’s answer to Chuck Barris, except Berg actually did everything he claimed to do.

Born to a Jewish family in Harlem, Berg first played baseball for the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church baseball team under the pseudonym “Runt Wolfe.” He attended Yale, graduating magna cum laude and having studied seven languages: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit.

Berg was perpetually a marginal major league player due to his poor batting; one scout summarized him in a telegram as “good field; no hit.” When a fellow player was told Berg spoke seven languages, he replied “Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them.” Still, good defensive catchers were hard to come by. As a result, Berg enjoyed a 15 year career, albeit one that amounted to only 663 games (an average of 44 per year, out of 154) spent with five different teams.

Yet in that career Berg compiled a lifetime of baseball oddities, including:

  • After his first season of baseball, spending the winter in Paris, taking 32 classes at the Sorbonne.
  • Reading several newspapers every day, and refusing to allow teammates to touch a paper he was still reading. He called the unfinished papers “alive,” and nobody was allowed to touch them until they were “dead.”
  • Perhaps for the above reason, being called “the strangest man ever to play baseball” by Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel.
  • Missing 1927’s spring training because he was still working on his law degree.
  • Preparing for 1928’s season by spending three weeks in an Adirondack lumber camp.
  • Finishing his law degree and taking an off-season job for the Wall Street law firm now known as Satterlee, Stephens, Burke & Burke.
  • Setting a then-American League record with 117 consecutive games without an error.
  • Being one of three players to visit Japan in 1932 to teach baseball. When the other two returned to the US, Berg traveled Asia extensively, visiting China, Thailand, India, and the area then known as Indochina.
  • Returning to Japan two years later with a group that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; during this trip, Berg was invited to address Japan’s legislature. He also took movie footage from a hospital roof, using a 16-mm Bell & Howell camera, of Tokyo and its harbor.

That footage would pay off. When the Second World War began, Berg took a position with the federal government. He screened his movies for intelligence officers in the US military, providing them with valuable knowledge of enemy targets. During his time in service, he participated in projects designed to:

  • Monitor the health and physical fitness of troops stationed in South America.
  • Prepare Slavic-American recruits for parachute missions in Yugoslavia.
  • Kidnap Italian rocket scientists and extract them to the US (Project Larson).
  • Interview Italian physicists to discover what they knew about German colleagues Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (Project AZUSA).
  • Attend a Heisenberg lecture to determine if the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, and to shoot Heisenberg if they were. (Berg determined they were not close, and shot nobody.)

Following the war, his use to the newly-founded CIA was short-lived – he was paid $10,000 to investigate Soviet development of nukes, and provided nothing of use. He spent the rest of his life unmarried and unemployed, despite his winking insistence that he never stopped working as a spy. He spent that time:

  • Living with his brother Samuel for seventeen years – apparently rent-free given his total lack of income.
  • Being evicted by Samuel for his moodiness.
  • Starting a memoir, until quitting when the co-writer assigned to him mistook him for Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
  • Refusing the Medal of Freedom given him by President Truman, and without ever offering a public reason for doing so. The medal was accepted for him by his sister Ethel after his death.

His final words, in 1972, were “How did the Mets do today?” He was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1996, and his is the only baseball card on display at CIA headquarters.