Why you should care
Because you can be a mediocre ballplayer and still be a legend.
In December 1944, Werner Heisenberg, Nazi Germany’s greatest physicist, gave a lecture at the University of Zurich to a couple dozen professors and graduate students. In attendance was a secret agent, working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the modern CIA. He was carrying a loaded pistol and a cyanide capsule (in the event he was captured), with orders to assassinate Heisenberg should he encounter evidence that the Nazis were close to completing an atomic bomb.
The identity of the spy entrusted with such a sensitive mission? Morris “Moe” Berg, a 42-year-old journeyman baseball player with only a passing knowledge of German and an even worse grasp of physics. Berg, who will be portrayed by Paul Rudd in a new film about his life, was an odd choice for the job, but the player called “the strangest man ever to play baseball” by Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel had made a career of being mysterious long before he became a spy.
Berg … remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in American history.
As Nicholas Dawidoff chronicles in The Catcher Was a Spy, the legend of Moe Berg has grown through time, and even though he may not have actually been fluent in 27 languages or held 16 degrees, the scholar, ballplayer and spy behind the myth remains one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in American history. Raised in a Jewish family in New Jersey, Berg graduated magna cum laude from Princeton in 1923, where he was a standout shortstop and earned a degree in modern languages (mastering at least half a dozen of them), and then obtained a law degree from Columbia University.
Despite his aptitude as a scholar and linguist, the young Renaissance man decided to take his talents to Major League Baseball, where he played 15 seasons with five different teams. Berg was a smart backup catcher with a strong arm, but he had little power or hitting prowess (a lifetime .243 hitter with six home runs). One of his teammates, when asked about Berg’s ability to speak seven languages, reportedly replied, “Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them.”
“Professor Berg,” as the sportswriters labeled him, could be charming, but he was often in a world of his own, a free spirit and eccentric who was hard to get to know. Books in multiple languages lined the walls of his residence, but he could not, or would not, drive a car. “Moe was a loner. He was self-absorbed,” says artist and author Neil J. Farkas, who has spent time investigating Berg’s notes and papers, but those same personality quirks are perhaps also what drove his bravery in the war and made him an ideal candidate for espionage.
Berg’s spying career began while he was still a ballplayer. In 1934, he was chosen, alongside the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, to be part of an American exhibition team showcasing baseball in Japan. While traveling through Tokyo, Berg, who could speak some Japanese, slipped away and went to the top of one of the city’s tallest buildings, where he filmed some footage of the city (on his own accord, not on OSS orders, according to Dawidoff) that the CIA claims was “reportedly” consulted to inform American bombing raids during World War II.
But after retiring from baseball in 1939, Berg would indeed be recruited to join the OSS. There, he would participate in daring missions, including parachuting into Yugoslavia to gather intelligence on groups resisting the Nazis and several trips inside the Soviet Union, but he would also gain a reputation as a sloppy spy who sometimes forgot to remove his OSS-issued wristwatch before going undercover.
Which is just one of the reasons Berg’s assignment to cover, and perhaps dispose of, Heisenberg in 1944 seems so bizarre. By that time, Allied spies had been tracking the physicist for years and knew there was no German atomic bomb. Moreover, “only a large dose of OSS wishful thinking,” Dawidoff observes, “finds Heisenberg, with his bomb nearly built, telling a lecture hall full of foreigners about it.”
Berg kept his pistol and cyanide in his pocket throughout the lecture and even managed to finagle an invitation to a small dinner party after it ended, where he was able to monitor Heisenberg more closely and overheard him lamenting that the war was lost for the Germans — helping confirm that an A-bomb was not going to change the course of the conflict.
After the war, Berg spent most of his remaining years living with his brother, sponging off friends and largely directionless until his death in 1972. He planned to write an autobiography of his spying and ball-playing days, but never did. Much of what we know about him remains shrouded in mystery. Just as Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle says you can never simultaneously know the exact position and speed of a particle, we will likely never ascertain the true nature of Moe Berg.