The Spy Behind Home Plate
A professional ball player turned international spy resonates like a best-selling novel, or a thriller out of a Hollywood script. But in the case of Moe Berg, it was the true tale of a major league catcher who mixed baseball with espionage.
This September, the Baseball Hall of Fame will feature an exhibit on Moe Berg, an enigmatic athlete-scholar who spent 15 short seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox.
Playing only 662 career games, Berg averaged .243 at bat and claimed 441 hits. While he didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame, Berg remains the only pro to have his baseball cards on display at the CIA Museum.
For sport, Berg never received more than a handful of induction votes at Cooperstown but for country, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom (though, he turned it down).
Born in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, the future cloak & dagger handler mixed brains and brawn in life’s pursuits. He joined the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) in 1923 after graduating from Princeton where he captained the baseball team his senior year.
Majoring in linguistics, the ivy-leaguer would communicate plays in Latin with an infield teammate whenever a runner was on second base.
A solid catcher in the majors and an astute observer of the sport, Berg’s cerebral side seemed out of place with America’s favorite pass-time.
Dodgers Manager Casey Stengel described Berg as “the strangest man ever to play baseball”. Informed that Moe speaks seven languages, Senators outfielder and roommate Dave Harris remarked “Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them”.
All field and no offense, Berg made his reputation behind home plate. Between 1932-34, the 6’1”, 185 lb. savant set an AL record by catching in 117 consecutive games without an error.
By the time he retired in 1939, Berg was already a bench warmer for several years due to a knee injury. He went on to coach the Red Sox for two seasons before jumping off to pursue his spy-craft talents.
A man of mystery on and off the field, the son of Russian immigrants never settled into family life and would often disappear on jaunts around the world. He even found time to get a law degree from Columbia University.
Berg made his foray into intelligence in 1934, seven years before the U.S. entered WWII. That season, he joined Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other All-Stars on an exhibition trip to Japan.
Without much play time, Berg roamed around Tokyo and utilized his proficiency in Japanese to make his way to the roof of a hospital where he filmed the city’s industrial landscape with a hidden camera.
Years later, those images were reviewed in planning bombing raids over Tokyo. But the stuff of legends came when the shadowy ex-baseball figure was sent to Europe by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor to the CIA.
In 1943, Berg parachuted into Yugoslavia to evaluate the different resistance groups fighting the Germans. Handsome, charming and multilingual, the former baseball catcher was also an ideal agent to ingratiate into European circles.
In Zurich, Berg managed to chat-up with Werner Heisenberg, the head of Nazi Germany’s atom bomb project. Berg was to kill Heisenberg if he revealed that Germany was close to producing the bomb. The American spy determined that they weren’t and the assassination didn’t take place.
Post-baseball and post-war, Berg remained mysterious if not eccentric, leading a jobless existence and living off family and friends. Reflecting on his life before he died in 1972, Berg said:
“…I’m happy I had a chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country. Perhaps I could not hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”
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