His life makes for a fascinating story even if the current spy movie is mediocre. “The Catcher Was a Spy,” tells of Morris “Moe” Berg, baseball player, and his remarkable intelligence and exploits, especially during World War II. Born in Harlem, not far from the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, Berg began playing baseball at age 7. He was to be called “the brainiest guy in baseball,” and Casey Stengel, a baseball player and manager who was something of an eccentric himself, referred to him as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”
Berg’s story, captured in Nicholas Dawidoff’s 1994 book of similar title, is also the story of the times in America in which he lived. Born in 1902, he begged to go to school at age 3 1/2. The third and youngest child of a pharmacist and a homemaker, Berg graduated from high school at 16, then Princeton magna cum laude in 1923, as an outstanding scholar-athlete playing baseball all along the way. He also grew up as an outsider, marginalized there because of modest finances and as a Jew at a time of deep bigotry. He majored in modern languages and spoke some half-a-dozen fluently, including eventually Japanese.
Upon graduation, Berg was signed to a contract by the Brooklyn Robins, soon to become the Brooklyn Dodgers and he seemed to be just so-so at bat but a good clutch hitter with a strong and accurate arm in the infield.
After that first season, Berg traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne and read several newspapers each day. By January 1924, Berg was not thinking of going back to spring training to develop himself as a hitter but rather found the idea of travel irresistible and went on to tour Switzerland and Italy. When he finally did return to the United States, he was optioned off to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association minor league. He was to play for four American League teams throughout his baseball career, primarily as a catcher, ending with the Boston Red Sox as player and then coach in 1941. “Good field, no hit,” was how Dodgers scout Mike González, characterized him. Berg distinguished himself for his putouts stealing percentage, double plays by a catcher and assists by a catcher.
However, throughout his baseball life, which he so clearly loved, he was a true Renaissance man. In between seasons, and sometimes missing the first couple of months of the new season, he studied law at Columbia University, passing the bar in 1929 and finally earning his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1930. Interestingly, he was sent with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and a handful of other all-stars to play exhibition games with the Japanese in 1934 — Berg’s second trip there. Although certainly not of their star caliber, he spoke the language and was probably included on the squad for that reason.
While in Tokyo, he donned a kimono and pretended to bring flowers to the American ambassador’s daughter, who was a patient in the Tokyo hospital. He went up to the roof instead, and from the top of one of the tallest buildings he used his 16-mm Bell & Howell camera that he had concealed in the folds of his garb to film the city and harbor. He never did visit the daughter but he did provide American intelligence with rare and invaluable footage later on. He supposedly did this in anticipation of the war that he was sure, from his various readings and Far East travel, was coming. He went on to join the Office of Strategic Services, later the CIA; was parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia evaluating which resistance groups should get U.S. support — he chose Tito’s group; and became involved in the frenzied effort to determine if the German scientist Werner Heisenberg was close to developing the atomic bomb with orders to assassinate him if so — Berg decided not. Otherwise, he was of immense value to the U.S. as he moved throughout Europe in his dangerous and exciting life.
The former ballplayer turned down the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor to the war effort, during his lifetime but the medal was awarded posthumously. In American history he is a mysterious footnote.