Baseball’s Moe Berg: Diamonds Are For Espionage

Boston Red Sox Morris ‘Moe’ Berg was a Princeton graduate, a superb linguist, and an unusual Major League Baseball star. “He could speak 12 languages,” a teammate joked, “but he couldn’t hit in any of them.” 

Berg lived an incredible life, secretly filming in Tokyo during a baseball tour of Japan in the 1930s and later joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the WWII civilian spy agency. But it was Berg’s grasp of nuclear physics and German that secured his place in history.

On December 18, 1944, as WWII raged, the OSS sent Berg to Switzerland with a pistol to hear German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg speak at the University of Zurich. Berg was part of an OSS team tasked with determining whether Heisenberwas building an atomic bomb for Hitler - and to shoot him, if Berg considered Heisenberg a danger to the US.

Berg blended in among the 20 or so guests and students, finding himself within throwing distance of Heisenberg, but the lecture involved the S-matrix theory - hardly a radical topic. Berg then arranged an invitation to a dinner party thrown in Heisenberg’s honor. After supper, Berg ‘accidentally’ left the party at the same time as Heisenberg and they chatted outside. Berg determined that the possibility of a Nazi atom bomb was distant and called off the assassination. It seems Heisenberg was none the wiser, suspecting Berg was a German intelligence officer with a Swiss accent.

Major League Espionage Player

Berg was born in Harlem, New York in 1902. His mother, Rose, was a homemaker and his father was a Ukrainian-born druggist who bought a pharmacy in Newark, New Jersey when Berg was still a child.

Moe was three-and-a-half when he begged his mother to let him start school and seven when he started playing baseball under the pseudonym ‘Runt Wolfe’ - a budding spy, even then.

Berg, a Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate, read 10 newspapers a day so it wasn’t difficult for him to answer questions on the radio quiz show Information Please, where he addressed the origins of words and their names in Greek and Latin, and answered questions about events in Europe and the Far East.

Baseball was his first love and Berg - by all accounts an average catcher with a lifetime batting average of .243 - played with the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Senators. He remained in the game for 15 seasons, albeit spending much of the time injured or warming the bench, and was known alternately as the ‘brainiest’ and ‘strangest’ man to ever play baseball. Teammates called him 'The Professor'.

Baseball’s Moe Berg: Diamonds Are For Espionage

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Boston Red Sox Morris ‘Moe’ Berg was a Princeton graduate, a superb linguist, and an unusual Major League Baseball star. “He could speak 12 languages,” a teammate joked, “but he couldn’t hit in any of them.” 

Berg lived an incredible life, secretly filming in Tokyo during a baseball tour of Japan in the 1930s and later joining the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the WWII civilian spy agency. But it was Berg’s grasp of nuclear physics and German that secured his place in history.

On December 18, 1944, as WWII raged, the OSS sent Berg to Switzerland with a pistol to hear German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg speak at the University of Zurich. Berg was part of an OSS team tasked with determining whether Heisenberwas building an atomic bomb for Hitler - and to shoot him, if Berg considered Heisenberg a danger to the US.

Berg blended in among the 20 or so guests and students, finding himself within throwing distance of Heisenberg, but the lecture involved the S-matrix theory - hardly a radical topic. Berg then arranged an invitation to a dinner party thrown in Heisenberg’s honor. After supper, Berg ‘accidentally’ left the party at the same time as Heisenberg and they chatted outside. Berg determined that the possibility of a Nazi atom bomb was distant and called off the assassination. It seems Heisenberg was none the wiser, suspecting Berg was a German intelligence officer with a Swiss accent.

Major League Espionage Player

Berg was born in Harlem, New York in 1902. His mother, Rose, was a homemaker and his father was a Ukrainian-born druggist who bought a pharmacy in Newark, New Jersey when Berg was still a child.

Moe was three-and-a-half when he begged his mother to let him start school and seven when he started playing baseball under the pseudonym ‘Runt Wolfe’ - a budding spy, even then.

Berg, a Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate, read 10 newspapers a day so it wasn’t difficult for him to answer questions on the radio quiz show Information Please, where he addressed the origins of words and their names in Greek and Latin, and answered questions about events in Europe and the Far East.

Baseball was his first love and Berg - by all accounts an average catcher with a lifetime batting average of .243 - played with the Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Senators. He remained in the game for 15 seasons, albeit spending much of the time injured or warming the bench, and was known alternately as the ‘brainiest’ and ‘strangest’ man to ever play baseball. Teammates called him 'The Professor'.

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  Paul Rudd played Moe Berg in the movie The Catcher Was a Spy

Moe Berg: Spycatcher

During a 1934 competition against a Japanese all-star team, Berg arranged for Movietone News to buy the film footage he shot during his trip using a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera. After Berg gave a speech (in Japanese, of course), he visited Saint Luke's Hospital - one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo - ostensibly to see a patient. Instead, dressed in a kimono, Moe filmed the city from the hospital rooftop with its view of the harbor, factories, and military installations (he’d later screened the footage for US spies).

Berg claimed he wasn’t officially a member of the intelligence community until 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the US government hired him to conduct a goodwill tour of South America and report back on whether leaders were likely to support the US against Germany.

By 1943, Berg was working for the OSS. While little is known about his training, Berg reportedly learned safecracking, lock picking, codes and ciphers, judo, and weapons handling. Some reports say he worked on the Balkans desk preparing Slavic-Americans for parachute missions into Yugoslavia. Others say he served as a Paramilitary Operations Officer for the Manhattan Project on the Alsos Mission.

Berg was known in baseball as 'the Professor’

Moe Berg: A bittersweet ending

According to Nicholas Dawidoff's biography, The Catcher Was a Spy, Berg was assigned to Project Larson in 1943, an operation to kidnap Italian rocket and missile specialists in Italy and bring them to the US. (He reportedly helped sneak Italy’s aeronautical engineer Antonio Ferri stateside.) During Project AZUSA, he interviewed Italian physicists to learn what they knew about Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker who performed nuclear research in Germany during WWII under Heisenberg's leadership.

In 1944, Berg traveled to Italy and met physicists Edoardo Amaldi and Gian Carlo Wick, who suspected that even if the Germans were working on an atomic bomb it would take them at least a decade to complete it. It was valuable intelligence.

Berg left the OSS after the war and his life story became even more curious. He trained for a career in law at Columbia University and joined the New York State Bar in 1928 but didn’t return to practice in the US. He declined a Medal of Freedom saying it would 'embarrass' him. Berg never married. He had no interest in coaching or managing baseball. Instead, during the last two decades of his life, Berg became a wanderer, living off relatives.

According to Aviva Kempner, the documentary filmmaker credited with The Spy Behind Home Plate, Berg raised money for Jewish refugees. 

Moe Berg (1902-1972) 

Dawidoff’s book, which also covers this period, said Berg died in 1972 in a motel at the age of 70 having fallen from his bed and bursting an aneurysm in his chest.

Berg served on the staff of NATO’s Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development and is said to have been employed by the CIA in the 1950s, but much of that work remains a mystery. His baseball card, however, can be found, framed, in the hallway at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia.

Before his death, Berg noted: “I’m happy I had the chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country. Perhaps I couldn’t hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”

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