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Moe Berg: The Catcher was a Spy

Moe Berg: The Catcher was a Spy

Nearly 150 Jews have played Major League Baseball. As Martin Abramowitz, the president of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc., points out, these Jewish big leaguers have combined for 22,000 hits, compiled a batting average of .265, hit more than 2000 home runs, and driven in over 10,000 runs. As of 2002, Jewish pitchers had a record of 1,134 - 1,114 record with 11,600 strikeouts and 810 complete games. All in all, Jewish ball players have performed at or slightly better than the statistical average for all big leaguers.

Two Jews - Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg - are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but of all the Jewish major leaguers, maybe the most compelling figure was Morris (Moe) Berg. Moe Berg was the son of a pharmacist who fled the Russian pogroms in the Ukraine. Born in New York City on March 2, 1902, Moe showed his athletic skills at an early age as a star player on a number of teams in Newark, New Jersey, where his family settled and his father opened a drug store.

What made Moe different from other baseball players, especially of his era, was his combination of athletic skill and scholarly mind. Moe loved baseball and learning - particularly languages. Moe attended Princeton University where he played baseball and studied modern languages. He translated Homer and Cicero from the original Greek into English and learned to read and write Sanskrit, one of the ancient classical languages of India. When Moe graduated from Princeton he took with him a .386 batting average, together with magna cum laude honors and an offer to teach in Princeton's Department of Romance Languages.

After graduation Moe turned down Princeton's offer to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had a brief stint with the team in 1923 before returning to the minor leagues. Yet, wherever he played Moe pursued his studies. In 1923 and 1924 he traveled to France in the off-season to study romance languages at the Sorbonne. In 1926 he enrolled at the Columbia Law School and, while continuing his baseball career, earned a law degree in 1929. He then passed the New York bar exam and took an off-season job with the Wall Street firm of Satterlee and Canfield, using his language skills to handle international business for the firm.

In 1926 Moe returned to the majors with the Chicago White Sox. He became a catcher and played in the big leagues continuously until 1939 with the White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, and Boston Red Sox. Moe was not a great player - "he can speak 10 languages but can't hit in any of them," his teammates would joke - and finished his career with only six homeruns, 206 RBIs and a .243 batting average.

The most fascinating and mysterious part of Moe Berg's story, however, was not his baseball career, but his secret life as a spy. There are many stories of how Moe became a spy, but it seems to have begun in 1934 when the U.S. government, knowing of his linguistic skills, approached Moe about doing espionage work. He was sent to Japan that year as part of a goodwill baseball exhibition that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Fluent in Japanese and known as a linguist, Moe was invited to deliver a talk at Meiji University and so charmed his hosts with his use of their language that they offered him a professorship. Later, while supposedly visiting a Tokyo hospital, he snuck away and took photos of the city that reportedly were used during General Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raids in the war.

In 1943, after retiring from baseball, Moe joined the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Moe's linguistic skills made him very valuable as a spy and he often went deep undercover, trying to learn Germany's atomic energy secrets during World War II. One of his most dangerous assignments came when he was dropped behind enemy lines in Italy and asked to impersonate a member of Hitler's general staff while "inspecting" the top-secret Galileo munitions plant.

It is said that when he was selected for this duty an aide asked Berg's commanding officer whether he knew of Moe Berg. "Yes," the general replied. "He's the slowest base runner in the American league."

The legend of Moe Berg - scholar, athlete, and spy - has grown and been glorified by many books and television documentaries that have been made about him. He was a mysterious and complex man, yet he maintained a warm personality and enjoyed socializing with his many influential friends. He amazed his teammates with his sometimes odd behavior. He would carry stacks of foreign newspapers with him on road trips and, when playing in Washington, D.C., kept a tuxedo in his locker for when he was invited to posh embassy parties.

Following the war Moe left the OSS and his life took a sadder turn. He never married, didn't have a job or much money, and lived with his brother and sister in sometimes tense relations. Moe Berg died on May 30, 1972 from complications after a fall. His sister took his ashes to Israel and - adding to the mystery of Moe Berg - left no clue as to where his remains are located.

For more information, visit the American Jewish Archives.

Sources: Martin Abramowitz, "American Jews in America's Game: The Making of a Card Set," in Jewish Major Leaguers Baseball Cards (New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 2003); Louis Kaufman, Barbara Fitzgerald and Tom Sewell, Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy (New York: Little, Brown, 1975); Nick Acocella, "Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy," Obituary for Moe Berg, New York Times, June 11, 1972.

 

Kevin Proffitt is the senior archivist for research and collections at the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, OH, where he has worked since 1981. A frequent lecturer on American Jewish history and consultant on synagogue archives, his publications include Starting from Scratch: Creating the Synagogue Archives.

Kevin Proffitt

Published: 4/30/2015

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