Moe Berg was one of the more fascinating characters in the world of both professional baseball and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. After playing professional baseball for 15 years and coaching for two more, he joined the OSS and was an operative in Europe during the war. But prior to that, he actually spied for the United States on Japan prior to the war during a pair of “friendship tours” of Japan with fellow baseball players.
Morris (Moe) Berg was born in Harlem, NYC on March 2, 1902. When he was just four, his family moved to Newark, after his father bought a pharmacy. He graduated from Barringer High School at the age of 16 and was named to an All-Star baseball team “Dream Team” as one of Newark’s top ballplayers.
He attended New York University for a year before enrolling in Princeton. He was a captain of the Princeton baseball team and graduated with a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts), magna cum laude in modern languages. He had studied seven languages: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Sanskrit (ancient Indian).
While playing shortstop in baseball, he and second baseman Crossan Cooper would speak in Latin in calling out their signals whenever a runner was on base. However, because of his Jewish heritage, he was never completely accepted in one of the Ivy League’s premier WASP academies.
In 1923, he signed a professional baseball contract with the Brooklyn Robins for $5000. Thus began a 15-year career in major league baseball. He was never a star, and after catching on with the Chicago White Sox in 1926, he did what at the time was unthinkable. He informed the team that he was going to skip spring training and attend Columbia Law School, in an effort to become a lawyer.
Berg languished on the bench for most of the season before injuries at catcher forced him to be placed there. He did such a good job behind the plate, that catcher became his primary position. In 1928, Berg led the Major Leagues in caught-stealing percentage (60.9). Although the game has changed drastically since then, it should just be noted that the MLB average for runners caught stealing in 2018 was just 27 percent.
Spying On Japan:
During the winter of 1932, MLB arranged for several players, including Berg to tour Japanese universities to teach the finer points of baseball. After their tour was over, while the other players returned home to the United States, Berg remained in Japan and visited other locales such as Manchuria, Shanghai, Peking, Indochina, Siam, India, Egypt, and Berlin. After returning Berg set an American League record of 117 consecutive games without an error by a catcher (since broken).
During his second trip to Japan, Berg, despite being a journeyman backup catcher was asked to be a part of an All-Star team making the rounds in Japan and playing against Japanese All-Stars. The team included such legends as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earl Averill, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Gomez.
Berg carried a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera and was to ostensibly film the tour for a film company in New York. But he’d have another job to do while there in Japan. Berg addressed the Japanese in their own language as the team arrived. While in the country, the team was to play a game in Omiya. Berg, skipped that game to supposedly visit the daughter of American Ambassador Joseph Grew in St. Luke’s Hospital. While there, he snuck up on the roof and using his movie camera to film the city and harbor, providing American intelligence some valuable insight into what, to them was a total mystery.
Later reports surfaced, that has never been confirmed that Berg’s film was used by LTC Jimmy Doolittle to plan his raid of Tokyo during the war. Once again, as soon as the tour was over, Berg didn’t return to the United States, opting to travel to Moscow, Korea, and the Philippines.
As his playing career was winding down, Berg played the final five years of major league baseball playing for the Boston Red Sox. He followed that up with two more with the Red Sox as a coach. During this time, Berg, the athlete scholar who read up to 10 newspapers a day, appeared on the radio quiz show, “Information, Please”. He was a frequent guest and blew people away with his overall knowledge about a variety of subjects.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told him, “in just thirty minutes you did more for baseball than I’ve done the entire time I’ve been commissioner”, but not everyone was enamored with him. Casey Stengle once described Berg as “one of the strangest men to ever play baseball.”
World War II Service:
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Berg was initially posted at a position that monitored the health of U.S. servicemen in Central and South America. But in early 1943, that all changed when he applied for and was accepted into the OSS.
Berg fit the mold perfectly that General William Donovan had for OSS, “PhDs that can win a bar fight.” Berg was a professional athlete who played 15 years in the bigs, could speak 10 languages, seven of them fluently.
Berg was assigned to the Special Operations Branch (SO). He was a paramilitary operations officer in OSS that would today be part of the CIA Special Activities Division. He was then transferred to the Secret Intelligence Branch, specifically the Balkans Desk.
Berg parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the different resistance groups operating against the Germans to determine which was the strongest and which one the United States would lend more of its support. He met with both Draža Mihailović and Josip Broz Tito and got an accurate, detailed look at their different groups, deciding that Tito had a stronger and better-supported group.
From there, Berg then took part in Project Larson and Project Azusa. The mission of the first was for OSS operatives to kidnap Italian rocket scientists and bring them to the U.S. The second project had to do with the grilling of Italian physicists to see what they knew about Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Those two men were heading up Nazi Germany’s Nuclear Weapons project.
In December of 1944, OSS learned that Heisenberg was giving a lecture in Switzerland. Berg went there to find out if the Nazis were close to building a bomb. If that was the case, Berg’s orders were to eliminate Heisenberg. But Berg learned that Germans were not close to building a bomb and Heisenberg lived (and was resurrected by Walter White in “Breaking Bad…I digress).
After the war when OSS later became CIA, Berg tried to join and get posted to Israel but was rebuffed. He did, however, get tasked by the agency to use his old contacts in 1952 to check on the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapon program. In his debrief, the CIA agent described Berg as “flaky”.
Unfortunately, that wartime service was the high point of his life. Berg never again held a job and lived with his brother for 17 years where he was forced to evict him. Berg then lived with his sister for the final four years of his life. He died from the results of a fall at his home at the age of 70 in 1972. His ashes were spread over Mount Scopus in Jerusalem per his own request.
His true love remained baseball. He once said, he’d “rather be a ballplayer than a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court” In fact, on his death bed, his final words were asking the nurse “How did the Mets do today?”
Berg would be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians during wartime, but he flat out refused it. After he died, his sister, Ethel, claimed the award, which she later donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Mr. Morris Berg, United States Civilian, rendered exceptionally meritorious service of high value to the war effort from April 1944 to January 1946,” reads the Medal of Freedom citation. “In a position of responsibility in the European Theater, he exhibited analytical abilities and a keen planning mind. He inspired both respect and constant high level of endeavor on the part of his subordinates which enabled his section to produce studies and analysis vital to the mounting of American operations.”
A former OSS operative and later the President of the New York Yankees, Michael Burke, said Berg was the ideal operative. “Moe was absolutely ideal for undercover work. Not by design; just by nature,” he said.
“One, because of his physical attributes. He could go anyplace without fear. He had stamina. Also, he had a gift for languages. In addition, he had an alert, quick mind that could adapt itself into any new or strange subject and make him comfortable quickly.”
“He was immensely involved intellectually and active in international affairs through reading and travel. He had the capacity to be at home in Italy or France or London or Bucharest. He was on familiar ground in all those places,” Burke added. “He also possessed a great capacity for being able to live comfortably alone and could do this for a long period of time. The life of an agent sometimes is a lonely one and some people aren’t suited for that.”
Berg’s life was made into a major Hollywood film starring Paul Rudd, “The Catcher Was a Spy.” We wrote a review of that here: