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Moe Berg: From MLB Player to WWII Spy

1930s | July 18, 2018

Catcher Moe Berg of the Washington Senators poses for a portrait on September 6, 1933 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stanley Weston/Getty Images)

Morris “Moe” Berg enjoyed two exciting careers in his lifetime…first as a Major League Baseball player and then as a World War II spy. He earned the unofficial title of “the brainiest guy in baseball” and it was Berg’s superior intellect that got people’s attention, not his athletic ability. Berg was a nerd and a jock at the same time. Casey Stengel even described him as “the strangest man to ever play baseball.” So how did a mildly athletic brainiac end up immersed in wartime intrigue? 

(MLB.com)

Baseball and Books

Moe Berg had a lifelong love of learning and even begged his mother to let him start school at age three and a half. When he was seven years old, he started playing baseball for the Methodist Episcopal Church’s baseball team even though he was Jewish, one of a long line of groups Berg belonged to where he was the odd-man out because of his religion. The next was the Barringer High School baseball team. After getting his diploma from Barringer, Berg attended New York University where he played on the college’s baseball team. After just one year, he transferred to Princeton University where he studied seven languages: French, Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in modern languages. At both New York University and Princeton, Berg didn’t really fit in with his fellow classmates because he was one of just a few Jewish students.

He did find a place on the Princeton baseball team. He was a solid, smart player, which made up for his slow running and mediocre hitting. During his senior year, he communicated plays in Latin with his teammate Crossan Cooper, to confuse the opposing players. 

Moe-ving up to the Big Leagues

The June 26, 1923, game between Princeton and rival, Yale, was held at Yankee Stadium. Even though Yale defeated Princeton, 5-1, Berg had a great game. He got two hits, a single and a double, and made some spectacular stops as the shortstop. In the stands scouting the game were representatives from the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Robins (later known as the Dodgers). Both teams were looking for a Jewish player to add to their rosters so that they could appeal to the growing Jewish populations in New York. Berg caught their attention, not so much for his playing ability as for his religion. Berg ended up signing with the Robins under a $5,000 contract, which would be equivalent to about $72,000 today. 

Paul Rudd plays Moe Berg in the film 'The Catcher Was a Spy.' (Courtesy of IFC Films/via JTA)

Spying for the War Effort

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berg joined the Office of the Coordinated Inter-American Affairs and shot footage of Tokyo Bay that helped Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle plan his famous Doolittle Raid. After that, Berg was posted in positions in South America and the Caribbean. Just one year later, He accepted a position with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s CIA, and the first mission with them had him parachuting into Yugoslavia to meet with resistance groups fighting against the Nazis.

Berg became a team member of Project Larson. Although the well-publicized mission of Project Larson was to kidnap Italian rocket scientists, a lesser-known aspect of the group was to covertly interview European physicists to determine how much they knew about the nuclear research being conducted by the Germans, particularly Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker. This task had Berg crisscrossing around Europe, hobnobbing with top members of the scientific community. 

A Would-Be Assassin?

When it was found out the Heisenberg was presenting a lecture in Zurich in December of 1944, the OSS sent Berg to attend the lecture. The brainy Berg could easily understand the complex scientific jargon, even in German. His orders were to determine how close the Germans were to developing a nuclear bomb, based on the information Heisenberg presented. If Berg thought the Germans were on the verge of success in nuclear weaponry, he had orders to assassinate Heisenberg. Although he was prepared to do anything for his country, he realized the Germans were not close to developing a bomb.

Still, for his heroics working for the OSS, Berg was awarded a Medal of Freedom. He rejected the award. It was presented to him again after his death and his sister accepted it on his behalf. 

(PennLive.com)

From Post-Wartime Spy to Freeloader

When the war ended, Berg reportedly begged the OSS, now called the CIA, to send him to Israel but his request was rejected. The CIA did utilize his skills for one more mission in 1952 when Berg was asked to use his WWII contacts to learn about the Soviet nuclear science program. Berg was never able to glean anything of value in his spying efforts, therefore he was sent back to the United States.

Berg never held another paying job again. If anyone asked him what he did for work, he would coyly put his finger on his lips, implying that he still worked as a spy. In reality, he couch surfed, living off various friends and relatives. He never married, or even dated, and preferred to spend time with his books. His final years were spent living in New Jersey with his sister, Ethel. Berg died on May 29, 1972. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.