Catcher, Lawyer, Soldier, Spy – the Strange Life of Moe Berg

berg_480_posterMorris (Moe) Berg was all that and more, a life-long bachelor, devoted Jew, and eccentric intellectual. The son of a NJ pharmacist, young Moe began playing baseball at age seven, first for a local church, then high school, then at Princeton. Berg graduated with a BA magna cum laude in of all things – Modern Languages. He left Princeton fluent in seven: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and even Sanskrit.

By 1925, he moved up to the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox. Berg skipped spring training though to complete his first year at Columbia Law. Nonetheless, by the end of the season, Berg found himself starting Catcher. In 1930, he received his law degree, passed the bar, and took a job with a Wall St law firm. Moe stayed with his first love however. The Cleveland Indians picked him up next, then the Washington Senators.

In 1934, he travelled to Japan with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, playing exhibitions against a Japanese all-star team. When they arrived, Moe gave the welcome speech himself in Japanese. An average hitter at best, Berg was picked up by his 4th and final team, the Boston Red Sox. In 1939, Moe made several appearances on a radio quiz show, Information Please, putting on an impressive performance. He became known by sportswriters as that eccentric scholar athlete.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Berg accepted a position with the Army Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He parachuted into Nazi occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the resistance fighting the Nazis. In 1943, Moe was officially assigned to the ALSOS Project. Alsos was started by Brig. General Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project, to investigate Nazi atomic weapons development. Given his intelligence, charisma and linguistic skills, he was a natural.

In 1944, German physicist Werner Heisenberg was to lecture in neutral Switzerland.

Heisenberg had won the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics. More importantly, he was a lead on the so called Uranverien, the Nazi’s uranium project. Berg was ordered to attend and, if anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to an atomic bomb, he had orders to assassinate the physicist. With a pistol in his pocket, Moe met personally with Heisenberg that evening. He came to realize Hitler had never devoted the manpower or money to the project and decided to let Heisenberg live.

Following VE Day, Berg returned to the US and resigned from the OSS. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom but declined it. Both the White and Red Sox offered Berg coaching positions but Moe declined. He never rejoined his law firm either. Berg became moody and snappish, not seeming to care much for anything but his books and memories.

In the 1950s, Berg worked  briefly for the new CIA, using his old WWII contacts to gather intelligence about the Soviets atomic research. When his contract expired, the CIA chose not to renew it. For the next 20 years, Moe had no real job, living off his family’s charity. A charming raconteur, he loved to talk about Princeton, Japan, and Alsos, avoiding the ups and downs of his baseball career and the fact the CIA no longer wanted him. When anyone asked what he did for a living, he’d put a finger to his lips and wink, implying he was still a spy.

Berg received many requests to write his memoirs, but turned them all down. Moe died in 1972 at age 70, from injuries sustained in a fall. A nurse at the hospital recalled his last words, ‘How did the Mets do today?’ They had won. The same could not be said for Moe Berg.

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