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Moe Berg: The Brightest Man Ever to Wear the Tools of Ignorance

Rose Berg gave birth to her youngest son, Morris, on March 2, 1902, at the family’s cold water tenement in Manhattan. Moe grew up to distinguish himself on both the baseball diamond and in the classroom. His story is one that would forever be masked with secrecy and mystery until after he died.

Berg’s first exposure to baseball might be traced to when he was four years-old. That was the time that his father purchased a pharmacy in West Newark, New Jersey. A cop stationed near the pharmacy played catch with him. Not long after, Moe played real baseball on the Roseville Episcopal Church baseball team when he was seven. He used the pseudonym of Runt Wolfe.

As a young man, he demonstrated an acute prowess on the baseball diamond. For example, while in high school, Moe was selected by the Newark-Star Eagle as the third baseman on its nine-man “dream-team.” This was a team that represented the finest High School and Prep School players in the Newark area. He attended New York University as a freshman, playing both basketball and baseball there. The following year (1919) he attended Princeton and played first base on the school’s undefeated squad. The following season, Moe became the Princeton Tigers’ starting shortstop. While at shortstop he devised a cunning system of communication. Moe taught Crossan Cooper, his second baseman how to speak Latin and that is how they communicated with runners on base. By his senior year he batted .337 and also served as the team’s captain. Bill Clarke, the former Baltimore Orioles and Princeton coach, declared the 1923 team to be one of the best that he ever coached. The squad won 21 of 25 games, included 19 in a row in one stretch. They were denied the “Big Three” title on June 26, 1923, at Yankee Stadium, though, when they were defeated by Yale.

Moe Berg: Princeton Tiger 1923

Moe Berg: Princeton Tiger 1923

Years later, his older brother, Samuel Berg observed, “All baseball ever did was make him (Moe) happy.”

Berg was never a great hitter or base runner but he did possess a strong, accurate arm, combined with sound baseball instincts. By his final season at Princeton his hitting improved to .337. After college, Moe signed with the Brooklyn Robins in 1923 but batted a measly .186. The next year he was sent to the minors playing for both Minneapolis and Toledo of the American Association. He batted .264. Moe enjoyed a breakout season at Reading in the International League (AA) the following year. It would be his best season in professional ball when Berg played 168 games, accumulated 200 hits with 9 home runs, good enough for a .311 batting average.

Charles Comiskey, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, purchased Berg for $50,000 thinking he acquired a shortstop. He did not realize he also received a law student. Moe decided to use his earnings from baseball to pursue his law degree at Columbia during the off season feeling that a career as a lawyer would serve as a “fallback” profession if he did not succeed on the playing field.

HOF Owner Charles Comiskey

HOF Owner Charles Comiskey

When he asked his new employer for permission to report after spring training in 1926, Comiskey agreed. When Moe joined the team, he discovered that rookie Bill Hunnefield had won the shortstop job. Moe saw limited duty, appearing in 41 games and batting .221. Chicago finished the season in fifth place.

When Moe asked the owner if he could skip spring training again, Comisky wrote to Moe, “My dear young man, the time has come when you must decide as to the profession you intend following.” The White Sox owner had lost patience with his young player. After reading his boss’s note, Moe appealed to a dean at Columbia Law requesting a leave of absence for the rest of the academic year. His request was granted.

Berg struggled to decide which direction his life should take. Some of his friends felt that he squandered a brilliant career in law or academics to pursue baseball. One friend in particular felt differently. Dutch Carter, who was a lawyer, advised Moe to follow his dream. Dutch had desires for a career in baseball, but his family persuaded him to follow law and he always regretted it.

Every so often, something occurs in one’s life that points us in a particular direction; it all depends on if we chose to follow it. For Moe, it occurred as he rode the pine in Chicago. Then fate entered his life. A batter’s swing broke Ray Schalk’s hand, who was Chicago’s first string catcher and manager. Next a foul tip split Buck Crouse’s fingers. After that, third string catcher Harry McCurdy fractured a finger by being slashed by a hitter in Boston. Schalk went into a panic. He looked down his bench and asked, “Can any of you fellows catch?” Moe answered that he thought he could. When his manager asked who thought he could not catch, Berg replied, “My high school coach.”

Ray assured Moe that he would be obliged if he wanted to prove his former coach wrong. Right then and there, the Princeton graduate strapped on the tools of ignorance and went out to prove he could catch! Schalk was so happy with Moe’s performance that after the game he hugged and kissed him.

HOF Catcher-Manager Ray Schalk

HOF Catcher-Manager
Ray Schalk

After Berg established a place on the White Sox club, he improved a little at the plate by batting .246 and also led the league by throwing out 60% of the base runners who tried to steal on him! Moe Berg soon earned the reputation as an excellent defensive catcher. He possessed a strong arm that enabled him to throw out the swiftest of runners. Still the combination of his batting deficiencies and his Ivy League education led to a quote by a former teammate: “Moe, I don’t care how many of the college degrees you got, they ain’t learned you to hit a curveball.”

Mike Gonzales, a respected scout, described Berg as “Good field, no hit.” This term is still popular with scouts when assessing a player’s abilities.

In 1929, which proved to be his best season in the majors, Moe batted .287 while also throwing out would-be base stealers an impressive 45% of the time. It was also his first and last season as a full-time catcher. In 1930, Moe seriously injured his knees. He played in 20 games with a .115 batting average. After that, he was traded to Cleveland, then Washington, and finished with the Boston Red Sox before retiring after the 1939 season. Between 1931 and 1934 he set an American League record at the time, catching 117 consecutive games.

In 1934, Berg toured Japan with a group of major leaguers. His presence raised questions among the other touring players. I recently had a conversation with Earl Averill, Jr. who related how his dad (who was on that tour and a member of the Hall of Fame) could not understand why Moe Berg was a part of that group of players, one that included such luminaries such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Berg’s stats for 1934 were 62 games with two different teams, 0 home runs and a .251 average, not those of a baseball star!

In Nicholas Davidoff’s book The Catcher Was a Spy he claims that the U.S. government recruited Berg as a spy. Davidoff mentions a time on the 1934 tour when Moe went to a hospital in Japan to visit American ambassador Joseph Grew’s daughter, who had just given birth. It seems unusual that Moe was the only player to make this visit. Then Berg snuck onto the building’s roof to take pictures of the city. Legend has it that General Jimmy Doolittle’s pilots looked at his photos before their bombing raids during WW II.

The Catcher Was A SpyAfter Moe’s playing career ended he decided that he wanted to help fight Nazism. His first assignment was as the Goodwill Ambassador for Latin America. However, before he began his duties, he went on the radio to broadcast in fluent Japanese a message to his friends in Japan. He pleaded passionately with them not to enter a war which they could not win. Several Japanese people wept as Berg spoke.

After his travels through Latin America, he returned to work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was about this time that he parachuted into Yugoslavia with the intention of meeting with Tito. He reported back to Washington that they should back Josip Broz Tito.

Moe Berg in the OSS

Moe Berg in the OSS

Berg spent parts of 1944 and 1945 in Germany, helping to arrange for the arrest of several prominent German atomic bomb scientists. He was assigned to determine how close Germany was to developing an atomic bomb. Although not a scientist, Berg was able to teach himself Physics. Traveling through Europe, he discovered a factory in Norway that was producing a component for the atom bomb. He also learned of a plant in Duisburg, Germany that could manufacture an atomic bomb. While incognito he lured German scientist Werner Heisenberg, to Switzerland to attend a lecture on quantum theory. He overheard Heisenberg imply that Germany was not close to developing a bomb. This meant his mission to assassinate the scientist and then take cyanide to avoid capture was not necessary. Due to the Nazis’ lack of progress in making a bomb, Moe and Heisenberg’s lives were spared.

Not a lot of things add up in Moe’s life. Maybe this is what made him a successful spy. People still ask how Berg was able to have a major league baseball career for 17 years. Sure he was great defensively but was that enough to offset his inadequacies at the plate? There have also been murmurs that the U.S. government was responsible for his longevity in baseball

Moe Berg was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor but turned it down. His sister Ethel accepted it after her brother’s death. Berg died on May 29, 1972 in Belleville, NJ after taking a fall at his sister’s house. Moe was in reasonably good health at the age of seventy, but one morning he was in such a hurry to get out of the bedroom that he accidentally fell against the corner of a table. He died of internal bleeding after spending three days in the hospital. He was survived by Samuel, his older brother and sister, Ethel. Moe was cremated and the urn was interned with his father and mother in a cemetery in Newark, NJ.

For some unknown reason, Ethel had his ashes exhumed and took them to Jerusalem. Ethel died in 1987, so no one is alive who knows or is sure where Moe Berg’s final resting place is; a fitting ending to the tale of a major leaguer whom Casey Stengel – himself no contributor to belles lettres – once described as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”

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