The BASEBALL RELIQUARY Inc.
THE SHRINE OF THE ETERNALS
MORRIS "MOE" BERG
Wedged between Lou Berberet and Augie Bergamo in the Baseball Encyclopedia, Morris "Moe" Berg spent 17 years in professional baseball as a player and coach and was perhaps the most enigmatic and cerebral figure the game has ever known. At least two biographies have attempted to unravel the mysteries surrounding this American original, described by Casey Stengel as "the strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform." A shadowy figure who had a reputation of appearing and disappearing without warning, Berg was perfectly suited for espionage work. He was also a great storyteller who delighted in embellishing his stories; the difficulties in sorting out fact from fiction in Berg’s life have only enhanced his cult status in some baseball circles.
Berg was born in New York City on March 2, 1902. It is known that his affinity for baseball as a youth baffled his Russian immigrant family. Despite the objections of a stern father who regarded baseball as a useless American frivolity and never saw his son play, Berg pursued a career as a ballplayer. After graduating from high school with honors, Berg was accepted at Princeton (one of the country’s most WASPish colleges), an extraordinary achievement at that time for a poor Jewish boy. Berg became a distinguished scholar whose intellectual capacity was truly boundless. He was a linguistic prodigy, studying seven languages at Princeton, including Sanskrit. He also excelled athletically and was the star shortstop of the school’s baseball team, which won 18 consecutive games in his senior year.
Upon graduating from Princeton, Berg joined the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) as a backup catcher in 1923, and his baseball salary allowed him to continue pursuing his education at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied linguistics, and later at Columbia University, where he earned a law degree. Berg played for a succession of major league teams during the next 14 seasons, including the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, and Boston Red Sox. Although he was a strong defensive catcher, Berg was slow of foot and a mediocre hitter, with a .243 lifetime batting average and only six career home runs. In fact, the stock phrase used to describe Berg’s playing ability was that "he could speak a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them." But his vast knowledge of scholarly subjects ranging from medieval literature to experimental phonetics made him a favorite of sportswriters. Another fellow genius, Casey Stengel, called Berg "as smart a ballplayer that ever came along. It was amazing how he got all that knowledge and used them penetrating words, but he never put on too strong. They all thought he was like me, you know, a bit eccentric." Berg’s keen understanding of the game was evidenced with the publication of his essay "Pitchers and Catchers" in 1941 in Atlantic Monthly. This lengthy piece on the intricacies and strategies of baseball is still considered a classic of its genre.
In 1934, Berg, perhaps incongruously, was named to an American League all-star team that toured Japan and featured such greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx. Berg was idolized by the Japanese because of his mastery of their language and broad understanding of their culture. Unbeknownst to his hosts, however, he was secretly filming Tokyo’s shipyards, industrial complexes, and military installations from the rooftop of a hospital building. The oft-repeated claim that these images were later used in planning General Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raids on the Japanese mainland has never been confirmed. In any event, Berg’s daring stunt tested and demonstrated his capacity for invention and steady nerves, which would serve him well when, after leaving baseball, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, which preceded the CIA as America’s first national intelligence agency. Berg would become a highly successful spy during World War II.
Among his many missions on behalf of the OSS was to learn all he could about Adolf Hitler’s atomic bomb project. In December of 1944, Berg, posing as a Swiss physics student, attended a lecture in Zurich by Germany’s foremost atomic physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Carrying a pistol and a lethal cyanide tablet, Berg was ordered to assassinate Heisenberg on the spot if the scientist suggested a Nazi atomic bomb was imminent. Fortunately, the talk focused on basic physics and at a post-lecture dinner party, Berg, whose fluent German covered his identity as an American agent, engaged Heisenberg in an apparently casual conversation. The physicist intimated that Germany’s nuclear effort was lagging behind that of the Allies. Berg immediately cabled Heisenberg’s remarks to OSS headquarters in Washington. President Roosevelt was then briefed on Berg’s report by one of his generals. "Let’s pray Heisenberg is right," Roosevelt responded. "And, General, my regards to the catcher." Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom for his espionage work, but rejected the award "with due respect for the spirit with which it was offered."
After the war and for the rest of his life, Berg remained an elusive figure. By his own description, he became a "vagabond," living off the generosity of friends. But he always remained faithful to baseball and regularly attended games. A nurse at the Newark, New Jersey hospital where he died on May 29, 1972 recalled his final words as, "How did the Mets do today?" He left no estate of any kind and his ashes are buried somewhere on Mount Scopus outside of Jerusalem, but the exact site has been forgotten. In his biography of Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy, Nicholas Dawidoff wrote that "the final mystery of Moe Berg’s inscrutable life is that nobody knows where he is."