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Baseball Player & Spy

June 12, 2014 | by

Moe Berg was a second-rate baseball player but a first-rate spy for America and its Allies.

When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Morris “Moe” Berg was included. Although he played with five major league teams from 1923 to 1939, he was a very mediocre ball player. He was regarded as the brainiest ballplayer of all time. In fact Casey Stengel once said: “That is the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Why did Moe Berg go to Japan with all the baseball stars?

Lou Gehrig and Babe RuthLou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

The answer was simple: Moe Berg was a spy working undercover for the United States.

Moe spoke 15 languages, including Japanese. He had two loves: baseball and spying.

In Tokyo, garbed in a kimono, Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in St. Luke's Hospital, the tallest building in the Japanese capital.

He never delivered the flowers. The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and filmed key features: the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc.

Eight years later, General Jimmy Doolittle studied Berg's films in planning his spectacular raid on Tokyo.

Catcher Moe BergCatcher Moe Berg

Berg's father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught his son Hebrew and Yiddish. Moe, against his father’s wishes, began playing baseball on the street at age four.

His father never once watched his son play. In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. He read at least 10 newspapers every day.

He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, with Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit added to his linguistic quiver.

During further studies at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and at Columbia Law School, he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Hungarian.

While playing baseball for Princeton University, Moe Berg would describe plays in Latin or Sanskrit.

The R.A.F. destroys the Norwegian heavy water plant targeted by Moe Berg.The R.A.F. destroys the Norwegian
heavy water plant targeted by Moe Berg.

During World War II, he was parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there. He reported back that Marshall Tito's forces were widely supported by the people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic's Serbians.

The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge. But there was more to come in that same year.

Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground and located a secret heavy water plant, part of the Nazis' effort to build an atomic bomb.

His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid to destroy the plant.

Werner HeisenbergWerner Heisenberg

There still remained the question of how far had the Nazis progressed in the race to build the first Atomic bomb. If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war. Berg, under the code name "Remus," was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, lecture and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A-bomb. Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate student. The spy carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.

If the German indicated the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was to shoot him and then swallow the cyanide pill.

Moe, sitting in the front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so he complimented Heisenberg on his speech and walked him back to his hotel.

March 2, 1902 - May 29, 1972; Moe Berg’s baseball card is the only card on display at the CIA HeadquartersMarch 2, 1902 – May 29, 1972
Moe Berg’s baseball card is the only card on display at the CIA Headquarters

Moe Berg's report was distributed to Britain's Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and key figures in the team developing the Atomic Bomb. Roosevelt responded: "Give my regards to the catcher."

Most of Germany’s leading physicists had been Jewish and had fled the Nazis mainly to Britain and the United States. After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest honor for a civilian in wartime. But Berg refused to accept, as he couldn't tell people about his exploits.

After his death, his sister accepted the Medal and it hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Click here for a full length book account about Moe Berg.

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