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.”
BASKETBALL February 15, 2009 The NBA holds its 58th annual All-Star game in Phoenix, Arizona. The Western Conference defeats the East 149-119 with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal sharing the MVP Award. The former received his 15th and final All-Star selection, the second highest in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 19.
FOOTBALL February 16, 1999 O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy is sold for $230,000 to help settle a civil judgement against him for the deaths of his ex-wife and friend. O.J. won the Trophy in 1968 as a running back for USC; he later played for the Buffalo Bills and SF 49ers. His life began to spiral downward in 1994 following murder charges against him.
BASEBALL February 16, 1989 Pitcher Roger Clemens signs a record $7.5 Million, 3-year contract to extend his tenure with the Boston Red Sox. The 11x career All-Star would win the Cy Young Award 7 times, more than any other pitcher, and the World Series twice, in 1999 and 2000 with the NY Yankees. He retired in 2007 with a W/L record of 354/184.
AUTO RACING February 18, 1979 In a race for the ages, Rich Petty wins the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Trailing in 3rd place towards the end of the chase, the North Carolina native cleared the finish line after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, driving 1st and 2nd place cars, collided in the final lap and opened up the win for Petty.