Moe Berg’s life proves the adage that "truth is often stranger than fiction." One of the best educated, intellectually accomplished and patriotic Jewish athletes in the history of American sports, Berg got his start in baseball in 1906, at the age of four, playing catch with the beat policeman in front of his father’s Newark, NJ, pharmacy. Berg became an excellent linguist while an undergraduate student at Princeton University, where he studied Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit. He began his career as a spy on a hospital roof in Japan (more about that later).
After graduating from high school at the top of his class, Moe went to Princeton, an unusual accomplishment for a poor Jewish boy in the 1920s. He became the star shortstop of the college baseball team, graduated magna cum laude and was offered a teaching post in Princeton’s Department of Romance Languages. Wanting to study experimental phonetics at the Sorbonne but unable to afford graduate study overseas, Berg accepted a contract to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Moe’s hitting was below par and he was sent to the minors after the 1924 season. It was Moe who inspired a professional scout to coin the immortal baseball phrase, "Good field, no hit." One teammate said, "Moe, I don’t care how many of them college degrees you got, they ain’t learned you to hit that curve ball no better than the rest of us."
Berg returned to the majors in 1926 with the Chicago White Sox. At the same time, he attended Columbia Law School. Despite his hectic schedule, the brilliant Berg managed to finish second in his class at Columbia. That year, the White Sox asked him to play catcher, a position that took advantage of his strong arm and intelligence. Casey Stengel compared Berg’s defensive skills to the immortal Bill Dickey. Moe hit .287 in 1929 and received votes for Most Valuable Player but in 1930 he seriously injured his knee, ending his career as a full-time player. He played as a reserve for three more teams until he retired in 1939.
In 1934, Berg toured Japan with a group of major league all-stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Still respected as a linguist, Moe was invited to lecture at Meiji University, where he delivered an eloquent speech in Japanese. Apparently, before the trip, the U.S. government had recruited Berg as a spy. While at a Tokyo hospital ostensibly visiting an American mother who had just given birth, he sneaked onto the roof and took photos of the city. Pilots reportedly later used the photos during bombing raids in World War II.
As a Jew wanting to fight Nazism, Berg volunteered to serve when America entered the war in 1941. He was asked to become a Goodwill Ambassador to Latin America. Before he left on his ambassadorial mission, Berg made a radio broadcast to the Japanese people over the radio in which, to quote his biographers Harold and Meir Ribalow, "In fluent Japanese, he pleaded at length, ‘as a friend of the Japanese people,’ for the Japanese to avoid a war ‘you cannot win.’" The Ribalows report, "Berg’s address was so effective that several Japanese confirmed afterwards they had wept while listening."
After his stint in Latin America, Moe returned to the U.S. to work for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency. He parachuted into Yugoslavia and, after meeting Tito, suggested that the U.S. back him rather than his Serbian rival. Despite the fact that he was not a scientist, Berg was next assigned to help determine how close Germany was to developing an atomic bomb. In a few weeks studying textbooks, Berg taught himself a great deal about nuclear physics. Traveling through Europe, Berg discovered that a factory in Norway was producing an atomic bomb component for the Nazis and Allied planes bombed it. Berg then learned that the Nazis had an atomic research center at Duisberg, Germany, and it too was bombed.
Incognito, Berg managed to lure the leading German atomic physicist, Werner Heisenberg, to Switzerland to give a lecture on quantum theory. At a dinner afterwards, Berg heard Heisenberg imply that Germany was behind the U.S. in bomb development. President Roosevelt greeted Berg’s report warmly. At great risk as a Jew, Berg spent parts of 1944 and 1945 in Germany, helping arrange for the capture of several prominent German atomic scientists by U.S. troops before the Russians got them. At war’s end, Berg was offered the Medal of Merit, the highest award given to civilian in the war effort, but he modestly declined it. Moe lived out a quiet life in Newark, where he died at age 70.
Some of Berg’s friends felt he squandered what could have been a brilliant career in law or academics to play baseball. His brother observed that "all [baseball] ever did was make him happy." His teammate Ted Lyons said, "A lot of people tried to tell him what to do with his life and brain and he retreated from this . . . He was different because he was different. He made up for all the bores of the world. And he did it softly, stepping on no one."
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society
Photo: THE OSS IN ITALY 1942-1945. A Personal Memoir. MAX CORVO. 1990 Praeger. The picture has the caption Moe Berg, sent by Donovan on a special scientific mission, standing at Piazza del Palio in Siena on the day the city fell to Algerian Goumiers, June 2, 1944.