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."
WILLIAM FRANCIS LEE
For 14 years as a left-handed pitcher (1969-1982), ten with Boston and four with Montreal, Bill Lee was anything but a conventional major league ballplayer. His career record was a respectable 119-90, including three consecutive 17-win seasons with the Red Sox (1973-1975) and a 16-win season with the Expos in 1979. He was selected to the American League All-Star squad in 1973 and pitched in the World Series in 1975 against the Cincinnati Reds. But it was Lee’s rebellious spirit and opposition to the conservative baseball establishment that usually rated more attention than his performance on the field. Lee’s coach at the University of Southern California, Rod Dedeaux, said that his pupil did little to dispel the stereotypes about southpaw pitchers: "I always understood everything Casey Stengel said, which sometimes worried me. But I know that all my hours with Casey helped prepare me for Billy Lee."
Lee was one of the game’s few counterculture symbols: he talked to animals, championed environmental causes, practiced yoga, ate health foods, sprinkled marijuana on his buckwheat pancakes (an indiscretion for which he was fined $250 by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn), pondered Einstein and Vonnegut, quoted from Mao, and studied Eastern philosophers and mystics. It was in this context that former Red Sox teammate John Kennedy first dubbed him "Spaceman," a nickname writers thereafter used as shorthand to describe his free spirit. At first irritated by the appellation (preferring to be known as "Earth Man"), Lee would eventually approve of the "Spaceman" moniker. "I realized that it’s the ultimate compliment," he remarked. "Everybody thinks they’re earthlings but in actuality we’re only here for a brief moment, and the cinder that we’re on is moving as Spaceship Earth, so we’re all space travelers."
A folk hero to fans (especially to the students, hippies, and radical subculture that adopted Fenway Park in the early ‘70s), Lee was a voice of reason and sanity in a game corrupted by "planet-polluting owners" and the corporate mindset. Although he often crossed swords with management, matching his wits with their authority, Lee, in hindsight, can be viewed not as a rebel but as a "purist" and "traditionalist." In his freewheeling autobiography, The Wrong Stuff (1984), Lee argued his case: "I hated the D.H. and all the other new wrinkles that had been introduced in an attempt to corrupt the game. I wanted to go back to natural grass, pitchers who hit, Sunday doubleheaders, day games, and the nickel beer. . . . We have to drive these atrocities out of baseball. It will be doing the entire country a great service. Baseball is the belly button of America. If you straighten out the belly button, the rest of the country will follow suit."
Lee’s belief that ballplayers had an obligation to work for the good of humankind rooted his value system squarely in a socially-conscious, 1960s mentality. And he saw no contradiction in an athlete maintaining a strong competitive desire in concert with humanistic values, addressing this issue directly in the final paragraph of The Wrong Stuff: "If I accomplished anything as a player, I hope it’s that I proved you could exist as a dual personality in the game. I had to pass through the looking glass every time I went out on the field. Away from the ballpark, I tried to care about the earth, and I wasn’t concerned with getting ahead of the ‘other guy.’ On the mound, I was a different person, highly competitive and always out to win. Who I was off the field fed the person I became on it. I had to make the stands I did. To be silent in the face of injustice would have made my life and my pitching meaningless. If I was able to keep my compassion while retaining my competitive senses, then I would judge my career a success. I hope I was able to make more than just a few fans smile, while showing them that the game shouldn’t be taken too seriously. If I am remembered by anyone, I would want it to be as a guy who cared about the planet and the welfare of his fellow man. And who would take you out at second if the game was on the line."
When Bill Lee was given his walking papers by the Montreal Expos in 1982 (which he appropriately signed "Bill Lee, Earth ‘82"), only the chapter of his life dealing with major league baseball was closed. He still plays baseball whenever and wherever he can, participating in fantasy camps and organized leagues or competing in whatever sandlot games he can get into. "I just don’t want to look fat when they bury me," adds Lee. Baseball’s version of Peter Pan, Lee is scheduled to pitch a doubleheader in Portland, Maine the day before his induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.
A resident of Vermont, Lee continues to break barriers and blaze new grounds, having recently barnstormed Cuba with a team of American old-timers competing against senior Cuban players.
Albert Kilchesty, the Baseball Reliquary’s Archivist/Historian, has observed, "Many writers have gushed profusely about baseball’s role as a social mirror, reflecting all that is noble and wholesome about American life. Baseball is a mirror of American life, but it reflects more frequently all that is wrong with America, not what is right. America’s struggle with issues of ‘difference’ — race, class, gender, sexual orientation — are all reflected glaringly in the great American pastime. While one could cite any number of instances in which baseball has responded to perceived ‘threats’ to its purity by blackballing alleged ‘offenders,’ the case of Pam Postema, an umpire, is especially appalling."
Following in the footsteps of Bernice Gera and Christine Wren, the first two women to go through umpiring school and work briefly in the minor leagues, Pam Postema was one of 130 students who enrolled in the 1977 winter session of the Al Somers Umpire School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Describing the Somers school as "an umpire’s version of boot camp," Postema finished high in her class and began her professional career in the same year at the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. She spent the next 13 years steadily progressing through the ranks of minor league umpiring, by far the longest tenure of any woman in an on-field capacity in major professional sports. Following stops at the Class-A Florida State League and the Class-AA Texas League, Postema arrived at the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 1983. She was an excellent arbiter and a hard worker, extremely dedicated to her profession. After watching many of her male counterparts, often possessing less experience than she, promoted to the big leagues, Postema at last seemed assured of a major league umpiring slot. But that promotion never came, as the Lords of Baseball refused to allow her entrance to their good ol’ boy network. After six years at the highest rung of minor league baseball, Postema was released from her contract by the Triple-A Alliance in 1989, thus ending her dream of umpiring in the major leagues.
Postema faced seemingly insurmountable roadblocks along the way, from low pay to poor working conditions to a constant battle for respect from players, managers, and colleagues. She had hoped everyone would grow bored with the novelty of a woman umpire, and she would slip into the major leagues unnoticed. But after Bob Knepper’s Neanderthal comments following a 1988 spring training game, Postema realized that no matter how competent she was as an arbiter, she would never crack baseball’s all-male domain. After praising her work behind the plate, the Astros pitcher launched into a chauvinistic tirade: "I just don’t think a woman should be an umpire. There are certain things a woman shouldn’t be and an umpire is one of them. It’s a physical thing. God created women to be feminine. I don’t think they should be competing with men. It has nothing to do with her ability. I don’t think women should be in any position of leadership. I don’t think they should be presidents or politicians. I think women were created not in an inferior position, but in a role of submission to men. You can be a woman umpire if you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. You can be a homosexual if you want, but that doesn’t mean that’s right either."
Postema eventually filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against major league baseball in Federal court, which was later settled. In 1992, while working as a truck driver for Federal Express in California, she published her no-holds-barred autobiography, You’ve Got to Have Balls to Make It in This League. On major league baseball’s determination to keep their field of dreams a male privilege, Postema wrote, "Almost all of the people in the baseball community don’t want anyone interrupting their little male-dominated way of life. They want big, fat male umpires. They want those macho, tobacco-chewing, sleazy sort of borderline alcoholics. If you fit their idea of what a good umpire is, then you’re fine. And isn’t that the way society is? Nobody wants any glitches. If somebody is a nonconformist like me or, say, Dave Pallone, then we get shown the door. It’s hard to accept. And I’ll never understand why it’s easier for a female to become an astronaut or cop or fire fighter or soldier or Supreme Court justice than it is to become a major league umpire."
In the concluding chapter of her book, Postema candidly addresses the fallacy of her belief that as long as she did her job, it didn’t matter what sex she was. Her 13-year experience proved to her that the men who run baseball could care less about equal rights. Postema contends she made a strategic mistake in downplaying her feminist beliefs so as not to alienate the baseball establishment, preferring to fight the battle on her own without the help of any women’s organizations that she could have relied on for support. In hindsight, she would have trumpeted her feminist beliefs, drawing attention to herself and to the plight of women, rather than being the "respectful little soldier."
Postema is currently a factory worker in her home state of Ohio. Over a decade after leaving professional umpiring, she still awaits the day that baseball’s last barrier will be broken.