Morris (Moe) Berg was all that and more, a life-long bachelor, devoted Jew, and eccentric intellectual. The son of a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, young Moe fell in love with baseball. He began playing baseball at age seven, first for a local Christian church, then high school, then at Princeton University. The sport became his lifelong passion. Berg graduated with a BA magna cum laude in of all things – Modern Languages. He left Princeton fluent in seven of them: Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, German and even Sanskrit.
By 1925, he moved up to the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox. Berg skipped spring training though to complete his first year at Columbia Law School. Nonetheless, by the end of the season, Berg found himself the White Sox starting Catcher. In 1930, he received his law degree, passed the bar, and took a job with a Wall Street law firm. Moe didn’t last there long and switched back to his first love, baseball. His strict father disapproved of making a sport your living, and never attended a single one of Moe’s games. Though a decent fielder, hitting was always Moe’s weakness. The Cleveland Indians picked Moe up next, then later the Washington Senators.
“Perhaps I could not hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.”Moe Berg
In 1932, Berg traveled to Japan with 3 other major league players to teach a baseball seminar at Japanese universities. He used the opportunity to travel the country and learn yet another language. In 1934, he traveled back to Japan with none other than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, playing exhibition games against a Japanese All-Star team. When they arrived, Moe shocked both his teammates and his hosts by giving the welcome speech himself in fluent Japanese.
In 1939, Moe made several appearances on a radio Quiz Show, Information Please, putting on an impressive and charming performance. He became known by sportswriters as that eccentric, ‘scholar athlete,’ an unusual combination to say the least. Fans called him the professor, obviously the strangest man ever to play the game of baseball. He was indeed an odd duck – a loner, well-dressed dandy, and definitely a know-it-all. Despite a lengthy affair with a woman in New York, they never married. There were quiet rumors that ‘bachelor’ Moe was secretly a closeted homosexual. An average hitter at best, Berg was picked up by his 4th and final team, the Boston Red Sox.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berg accepted a civilian position with the Army Office of Strategic Services. With his intellect and grasp of languages, Moe was well suited for the OSS, not to mention he’d be a Jew fighting Nazis. On his first mission overseas, he parachuted into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the Serbian resistance forces fighting the Germans. In 1943, Moe was officially assigned to the top secret Alsos Project. Alsos was started by Brigadier General Leslie Groves, of the famous atomic bomb Manhattan Project, lead by Robert Oppenheimer. Alsos’ mission was to investigate the Nazi’s atomic weapons development. Given his intelligence, natural charisma, and linguistic skills, he was a natural for the job.
In 1944, German physicist Werner Heisenberg was to lecture in neutral Switzerland on Germany’s atomic research.
Heisenberg had won the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics. More importantly, he lead the so called Uranverien, the Nazi’s Uranium Project. Berg was ordered to attend the lecture in Zurich. And, if anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to an atomic bomb, he had orders to assassinate the physicist that night! So Moe Berg, baseball catcher, lawyer and now soldier, was asked to be a military assassin as well. But could he do such a thing when the time came?
Berg sat quietly in the audience and listened intently. But Heisenberg’s Zurich lecture was inconclusive as to Germany’s real progress when it came to nuclear weapons. So with a loaded pistol in his pocket, Moe managed to meet personally with Werner after a dinner that evening. Berg had studied up on physics and could hold his own in a conversation. During their casual chat, Berg came to realize Adolf Hitler had foolishly never devoted the money nor manpower to their Uranverien Project that the Americans had thought. The Allies had also successfully sabotaged the Vemork heavy water plant in Norway the previous year. The Nazis were in fact no where near as advanced as the Americans!
Moe Berg sighed heavily, uncocked the pistol in his pocket, and let Heisenberg live.
Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project won the race and developed the first atomic bomb. Following Victory in Europe (VE) Day at the end of World War II, Berg returned to the U.S. and resigned from the OSS. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined it when he was told he could not divulge his secret war missions. Both the White Sox and Red Sox offered Berg coaching positions, but Moe declined them as well. He never rejoined his law firm either. Past his athletic prime, and unable to boast of his war escapades, Berg became moody, bitter and snappish. He no longer seemed to care much for anything, but reading books and recanting his baseball memories.
In the 1950s, Berg worked briefly for the new CIA, using his old WWII contacts to gather intelligence about the Soviet’s atomic research. When his contract expired, the CIA chose not to renew it and Moe turned bitter once again. For the next 20 years, Moe never married and had no real job, living off first his brother’s, then his sisters’ charity. He read stacks of books, daily newspapers and of course went to major league baseball games. A charming storyteller, he loved to talk with anyone about his days at Princeton, baseball, Japan, and even Alsos. He avoided the ups and downs of his career, or the fact the CIA no longer wanted him. When anyone asked what he currently did for a living, he’d put a finger to his lips, wink an eye, and whisper “Shhh,” implying it was top secret and he was still a spy.
Recognizing his unusual life, Berg received a request from a New York publisher to write his memoirs. But Moe angrily turned it down when he discovered one of the editors thought he was also Moe of The Three Stooges comedy trio. Berg died in New Jersey in 1972 at age 70, from an aneurysm sustained in a fall at his sister’s house. A nurse at the hospital recalled his last words, ‘How’d the Mets do today?‘ She told him. They had won. The same could not be said for the enigmatic Morris Berg – catcher, lawyer, soldier and spy. At his request, his remains were spread in Jerusalem.
In 2018, a low budget movie was made of his odd life, The Catcher was a Spy, starring actor Paul Rudd.