“Moe” Berg: Sportsman, Scholar, Spy
Morris “Moe” Berg, a professional baseball player who also served his country as an intelligence officer, lived a life many can only dream of. A true Renaissance man, Berg graduated from Princeton University, passed the New York State bar exam and learned eight languages.
After graduating from college in 1923, Moe played 15 seasons of major-league baseball as a shortstop, catcher and coach. Pictured are his cards as coach of the Boston Red Sox in 1940 and as catcher for the Washington Senators (from 1932 – 34).
Mixing Baseball and Intelligence
Berg’s entrance into the field of intelligence began when he, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other baseball greats formed an all-star team and traveled to Japan in the mid-1930s for exhibition games.
Proficient in Japanese, Berg talked his way into one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo. He climbed to the rooftop alone and used a movie camera to film the capital city’s shipyards. Reportedly, the US used Berg’s footage to plan bombing raids over Tokyo in World War II.
OSS Intelligence Career Highlights
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berg initially joined the White House’s new Office of Inter-American Affairs but left for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1943. He became a paramilitary officer and carried out various intelligence operations in Europe, including parachuting into Yugoslavia to evaluate resistance groups there.
By 1945 Berg had been tasked to determine whether Nazi Germany was close to having a nuclear weapon. Using his language skills and charm, he managed to locate and chat with Werner Heisenberg, a top physicist in the Third Reich. Berg accurately determined that the answer was “no.”
Berg stayed with the OSS until it dissolved in 1945. Afterward, he served on the staff of NATO’s Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research and Development.
A Word from Berg
Before his death in 1972, Berg said, “Maybe I’m not in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame like so many of my baseball buddies, but I’m happy I had the chance to play pro ball and am especially proud of my contributions to my country. Perhaps I could not hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once described Moe Berg as a most unusual fellow.
When the war ended, Moe Berg found himself unemployed. He did receive occasional intelligence assignments, including a visit to the Soviet Union, where his ability to speak Russia was valuable. Traveling with other agents, when asked for credentials, by a Soviet border guard in Russian-dominated Czechoslovakia, he showed the soldier a letter from the Texaco Oil company, with its big red star. The illiterate soldier was satisfied and let them pass.
He lived with his brother Samuel for 17 years and, when evicted, spent his last final years with his sister, Ethel. A lifelong bachelor, he never owned a home or even rented an apartment. He never learned how to drive. When someone criticized him for wasting his talent, Berg responded: “I’d rather be a ballplayer than a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
I thought maybe this was urban legend, but this is from the C.I.A.’s own website, so I guess not! How come this hasn’t been made into a movie? It reads like one!