The Riddle of Moe Berg

The Riddle of Moe Berg
©Michael Feldberg, 2011

Morris “Moe” Berg is one of a handful of American Jewish cult figures. The baseball immortal Casey Stengel once described Berg as “the strangest fella’ ever to play the game.”’ Strange or not, Moe Berg was one of the best educated, intellectually accomplished and patriotic Jewish athletes in the history of American sports. His life is stranger than fiction.

Berg got his start in baseball in 1906, at the age of four, playing catch with the beat policeman in front of the Newark, NJ, pharmacy owned by his father, Bernard Berg. By age seven, Moe was playing in a church youth league under the less Jewish-sounding name of Runt Wolfe. From an early age, Bernard taught Moe and his two older siblings to avoid be defined as a Jew.

After graduating from high school at the top of his class and an all-city athlete, Moe went to Princeton, an unusual accomplishment for a Jewish boy in the 1920s. He became the star shortstop of the baseball team, graduated magna cum laude and was offered a teaching post in Princeton’s Department of Romance Languages, a topic in which he excelled. Wanting to study experimental phonetics at the Sorbonne but unable to afford graduate study overseas, on graduation day Berg instead signed a contract to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Robins, who would soon change their name to the Dodgers. Moe’s hitting was below par and he was sent to the minors after the 1924 season. It was Berg who inspired a professional scout to coin the phrase, “Good field, no hit.” One unlettered teammate is reported to have told him, “Moe, I don’t care how many of them college degrees you got, they ain’t learnt you to hit at curve ball no better than me.”

After two seasons in the minor leagues mixed with winter travel abroad, in 1926 Berg returned to the majors with the Chicago White Sox. Bernard Berg hated the fact that his son was a baseball player rather than a white collar professional like his siblings, and refused to attend any of his games. Perhaps to placate his father, that year Moe enrolled in Columbia Law School and split his time between the White Sox and classes. Despite this hectic schedule, the brilliant Berg managed to finish second in his class.

During the 1929 season, the White Sox asked Berg 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 batted .287 and received a handful of votes for Most Valuable Player in the American League. In 1930, however, Berg seriously injured his ankle, ending his career as a full-time player. He was a reserve for three more teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox, until he retired in 1940. Moe spent much of his time in the bullpen, warming up relief pitchers and acting as a second pitching coach. When he retired, the Red Sox offered Moe a coaching position, but war clouds had already broken in Europe and were gathering around the United States. As he told Red Sox manager Joe Cronin, “The world is in flames and my people are suffering, and I’m sitting here in the bullpen telling jokes to relief pitchers.”

Moe thought his gift for languages could help America while allowing him to indulge his passion for languages and world travel. He had already combined baseball, travel and patriotic endeavors. As early as 1934, Berg toured Japan with a group of major league all-stars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During the trip, Moe was invited to lecture at Meiji University, where he delivered an eloquent speech in Japanese. Few Americans at this time spoke the language, and the lecture made Berg a beloved figure among the Japanese people. It seems, however, that before the trip the U.S. government had recruited Berg as a spy, supplying him with a motion picture camera despite the fact that it was forbidden for foreigners to film in Japan. In Tokyo, ostensibly on a visit to daughter of the American ambassador to Japan who had just given birth, Berg snuck onto the hospital roof and filmed Tokyo harbor. Berg then snuck the film out of Japan. He later bragged that the Air Force used his films to plan their retaliatory raids on Tokyo after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but there is no evidence to corroborate his assertion.

When America entered the war in 1941. Nelson Rockefeller, then head of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, asked Berg to become a goodwill ambassador to Latin America. Before he left on his ambassadorial mission, Berg made a radio broadcast to the Japanese people in which, to quote 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 (OSS), 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. Berg was next assigned to help determine how close Germany was to developing an atomic bomb. Although he was not a scientist, in a few weeks of studying textbooks Berg taught himself the rudiments of nuclear physics. Secreted into Europe, Berg (disguised as a German officer) spied on a factory in Norway that was producing heavy water, essential for production of fissionable material. Soon after, Allied planes bombed the plant.

The OSS learned that, in 1944, the leading German atomic physicist, Werner Heisenberg, would travel to Switzerland to lecture on quantum theory. Berg was assigned to attend the conference by posing as a Swiss graduate student in physics. The OSS gave him a pistol and a cyanide tablet. If, in his judgment, Berg later disclosed, Heisenberg gave any indication that he was helping Germany build an atomic bomb, Berg was to shoot him and then kill himself by swallowing the tablet. Fortunately for both men, Heisenberg’s lecture did not touch on military matters. At a dinner afterwards, Berg heard Heisenberg lament that Germany was losing the war and lagged far behind the U.S. in bomb development. Berg let Heisenberg return home unharmed.

At war’s end, the OSS offered Berg the Medal of Merit, the highest award given to civilian in the war effort. For reasons known only to himself, Berg declined it. From that point until his death in 1972, Moe led a peripatetic life. Rather than have a home of his own, he resided with his brother Sam in Newark until his odd behaviors and compulsive hoarding caused Sam to ask him to leave. Moe, along with a truckload of his old newspapers and books, then moved in with his sister. Moe practiced a little bit of law for friends, briefly tried and failed the novelty business, but spent most of his time traveling from one friend’s home to another, charming his way into staying for weeks at a time. At best, we can describe Berg as eccentric. Less generously, we can see him as a lost soul who never settled into anything requiring sustained attention.

Like his father, many of those who knew Moe Berg thought he squandered what his talents, eschewing what would have been a brilliant career in law or academics to play a “child’s game” – baseball. Instead, he chose to travel unencumbered by the responsibilities of career, spouse or family. For the last 20 years of his life, Berg avoided any form of commitment. But perhaps this judgment is too harsh. So let us leave the last word on Moe Berg to his friend and White Sox teammate, Ted Lyons. “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.”

Photograph courtesy of the Princeton University Archives.

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