Moe Berg was intelligent, eccentric, a major league baseball player, a renowned quiz show attendee, and a World War II spy yet largely remains forgotten. Moe Berg isn’t an often written-about baseball star mostly because he wasn’t. These days the term “journeyman” would be tagged to his profile although he did have an OK season here and there throughout his career, his best coming with the Chicago White Sox in 1929 where he hit a respectable .287.
Moe Berg grew up within a Jewish household after having been born in early March, 1902. While highly intelligent and gifted in many ways, he often deviated toward baseball, against his more traditional father’s wishes which would cause consternation and troubles between them throughout their lives. But “Runt Wolfe,” a pseudonym Berg played under when he was seven years old at the Methodist Church would one day retort, “I would rather be a ballplayer than a bank president or a judge.”1,2 Aside from baseball, Berg was immensely intelligent; from his days playing ball for the Methodist Church, he’d advance toward Princeton where he majored in modern languages and spoke somewhere between 8-12 of them, including English. Berg was so adept at language that on the field at Princeton, where he played Shortstop, he and a teammate would casually communicate in Latin.3
Princeton wasn’t perfect for Berg, however. Due to his Jewish roots, this caused plenty of problems among the more elite crowd. When one of his teammates was invited to one of Princeton’s dining social clubs, Berg’s teammate said that he wouldn’t join unless Berg were also permitted entry. After some deliberation, the club said they would permit Berg to join as well but only if he didn’t bring in any more Jews. Berg rightfully and morally rejected the offer, as had the teammate, however, upon hearing this, Berg urged the teammate to join the club in spite of the incredible slight.4 Notably, Berg never went to any class reunions.
After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton and being offered a number of private offers for work, Berg instead signed with Brooklyn and simultaneously signed up for law school at Columbia.5 It was also at this point that we can note that Berg studied and knew at least eight languages: Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, while studying German and Sanskrit.6 As Berg floated up to the majors though, his numbers weren’t great as his languages and it was clear that his love of the game was one of the only things keeping him in the game. His positive and magnetic personality also, perhaps, lended itself to his longevity.
One of Berg’s teammates teased in a popular misquotation by Dave “Sherriff” Harris when he heard how many languages Berg spoke: ” Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them.”7 It should be noted that this quote has been quoted in many different ways with many different numbers of languages credited to Berg all the way from 7 to 12. The New York Times, perhaps predictably, is the most wildly off with their claim of 7 as we’ve already stated that he knew and studied at least 8 by this point. Perhaps by the time of the quote it had elevated to 12 or Harris simply threw out a number (or the reporter did) depending on which source you trust. It ought to be noted that 12 languages was the most often repeated amount for this quote but 8 is the most reliable that has been found in this limited research. Therefore, The New York Times’ claim of seven is just plain wrong and for that, among a few other reasons, their article has been exempted from this research.
Berg, in spite of his baseball mediocrity, was a personable man. He could run with the likes of Gehrig, Ruth and others. Perhaps this is what drew Ted Williams to ask Berg questions about what made great hitters great. Berg reportedly replied, “Gehrig would wait and wait and wait until he hit the pitch almost out of the catcher’s glove. As to Ruth he had no weaknesses, he had a good eye and laid off pitches out of the strike zone. Ted, you most resemble a hitter like Shoeless Joe Jackson. But you are better than all of them. When it comes to wrists you have the best.”8 In an ego-driven world, especially one such as baseball in the more modern era, it is interesting to read about someone so humbling. Once, Berg even said of himself, “I have met many men in the major league who excel over me in ways that I envy. Because I speak a few languages does not place my abilities over theirs. The joy of baseball is that a man must stand on his two feet and face his opponents. Philology (language knowledge) cannot assist me in fielding a grounder flawlessly or help when I’m at the plate, the bases are loaded, and my team is behind.”9 It is quite possible that Berg was the most intelligent yet at the same time the most self-aware man who has ever played the game.
Aside from his intelligence and magnanimity, there was also something else about Berg. While he was an deprived hitter, he was a natural at defense, particularly behind the plate. When he was younger he had played Third Base and Shortstop but when a series of Sox catchers went down in short time, Casey Stengel said, “Moe Berg was as smart a ballplayer as ever come along. [He] knew the legs wouldn’t cooperate in the infield and when the catching job opened he grabs a mask and puts it on and there he was. Guy never caught in his life and then goes behind the plate like Mickey Cochrane. Now that’s somethin’. But, I’ll tell ya again, nobody ever knew his life’s history. I call him the mystery catcher. Strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform.”10 Berg’s fielding, particularly behind the plate, is what kept him in the game. As ESPN noted, Berg had a “rifle” arm.11
It is unfortunate that Berg’s baseball trajectory would alter during Spring Training the year after he obtained the starting White Sox role when he injured his knee. From that point on, he went on to play for numerous other teams such as the Indians and the Red Sox but he was unable to get back to where he had been.12 However, the injury seemed to open up something else for Berg and his many talents.
In 1934 Moe Berg was sent to Japan as part of a major league All-Star team even though in his best season, he only received two votes.13 By this time, Berg was fluent enough in Japanese (9 potential languages) to get around and suddenly sprouted an interest in photography, especially of Japan’s skylines which Berg sent to the United States Government. These films were later used in Jimmy Doolittle’s revenge strike over Tokyo in 1942.14 There may have been a further buildup to this as well and not nearly as coincidental as it may seem as during his playing years, Berg had developed a rare relationship with the Rockefellers. Berg was so intelligent and seemed so content with being on his own and having a strength of courage which was rare in anyone that he was even involved with the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), the precursor to the CIA.
Berg’s previous relationship with Rockefeller likely helped him get into those government circles. Indeed, after Berg’s retirement, Berg left the Red Sox as a coach and in January 1942 accepted a job through Nelson Rockefeller where Berg would be sent to Central and South America where he could put to use his languages of Spanish and Portuguese (10 potential languages.) After Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, Berg got on the radio in February 1942 in the Americas and prophetically spoke in Japanese, “You [Japan] have outraged us and every other nation in the world with the exception of two – two that are tainted with blood – Germany and Italy – they welcome you as friends. But your temporary victories will bring you only misery… After the war, a nation will have to be watched to prove its right to be partners among the civilized. We were patient and took much abuse. We humbly made many concessions – we tried to remain friends. Believe me when I tell you that you cannot win this war. I am speaking to you as a friend of the Japanese people, and tell you to take the reins now. Your warlords are not telling you the truth. The people of the United States and the people of Japan can be friends as they were in the past. It is up to you.” Considering Berg’s involvement in Japan in the 1930s, his actions heading to Latin America and later to the European theatre, it’s unlikely that his involvement in the America’s was simply a goodwill of exchange. Or, it could’ve been during this time when observers had taken notice of Berg.
Commenting on Berg’s character, fellow OSS agent and future owner of the Yankees noted, “Moe was absolutely ideal for undercover work. Not by design; just by nature. 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. 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.”16
We should understand that Moe Berg did far more than just take a few photographs in Japan when it was relatively safe. According to one report he was sent into Italy during the invasion, and later, into Yugoslavia but perhaps most interesting for Western readers, it’s rumored that he was in Switzerland in 1944 to potentially assassinate Germany’s Heisenberg if, “…Heisenberg gave evidence the [nuclear] bomb effort was close to completion.”17 It’s claimed in the same article that it may have been Berg’s decision alone whether or not to render Heisenberg “hors de combat.”
Later, Heisenburg was giving a lecture in which Moe Berg attended with a pistol. If Heisenburg had mentioned progress on the German nuclear weapons program, or some other such signal to show advancement in the field, it was up to Moe Berg to decide what to do. But again, Berg relented. After the Battle of the Bulge, Berg’s involvement with Heisenburg came to an end when at a dinner, Heisenburg spoke about Germany’s loss of the war even though it had yet to officially occur.18 Once this admission came out, Heisenburg was safe from Moe and it appears Moe’s calculating mind had much more patience than it had at the plate when deciding on the fate of a man’s life and Germany’s late-war nuclear program.
Berg’s involvement in the agency after the war seems ultimately uneventful and short-lived compared to the previous decade and a half. Interestingly, he was the first baseball player to be offered the Medal of Honor award for his service as a spy in World War II but he turned it down.19 Later his family would ultimately accept the award on his behalf after his death.
The post-war years for Moe Berg were largely uneventful if we consider his colorful life in the big leagues and his espionage through World War II. Moe’s older brother, Samuel, reported that Moe became “snappish” and “moody” after the war, noting that Moe “seemed like a lost soul.”20 He’d read numerous books and would show up at Mets games wearing black suits with a black Chamberlain umbrella. And as for his personal life he never married. While some say he got close to marriage, World War II pulled him far enough away to the point where he eventually stopped communicating with his possible match, Estella Huni.21 It is difficult to say exactly what may have changed Moe Berg from the once personable, enigmatic man to one that had become quite different, as his brother described. While we do know of some of the things Berg did do and had tried as a spy, being in the intelligence agency and tasked with conducting very serious missions, it may be impossible to ever know his true story and the real events which changed him.
However, there was an opportunity to know his story at one time. In the 1960s Berg was suffering financially and finally agreed to write his memoirs. Upon agreeing to write his true life story, the editor inadvertently destroyed the agreement after praising his ability to sign Moe of the Three Stooges.22 Upon this perceived slight, Berg canceled the book and a memoir never materialized.
His thoughts and other events would never wholly come to light from his perspective as on 29 May 1972 Moe Berg died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. According to a source his last words were to his nurse, “How did the Mets do today?”23,24 Well Moe, the Mets won 7-6 beating the Cardinals in the final inning.25 What fitting last words for a die-hard baseball fanatic who could’ve had riches and dictated his life in any which way he wanted but through and through, every time, he chose baseball.
Regardless of one’s opinion about his choices in life, Moe Berg never seems to have been a fraud or a fake. Mark Stang noted Berg’s uniqueness when writing, “He never married, never learned to drive a car, and never wore anything but a black suit.”26 A few years after Moe’s death, Dr. Samuel Berg wrote in 1978, “You should know that Judge Landis remarked, after Moe appeared three times on ‘Information Please’ and a few years after the Black Sox scandal, ‘Moe, you have done more to restore the good name of baseball than any other player,’ or words to that effect.”27 It is odd how now we see Berg’s name in occasional footnotes of odd and strange history rather than those of baseball players with an exceptional mental caliber.
Baseball could only benefit from celebrating a man like Moe Berg who lived a life of his choosing and on a plane few ever could. In closing, it’s perhaps best to permit Ted Lyons the final comment on Berg’s illustrious life, “A lot of people tried to tell him what to do with his life and brain and he retreated from this . . . He was different because he was different. He made up for all the bores of the world. And he did it softly, stepping on no one.”28 Well, perhaps except for a few Nazis along the way.
1 Acocella, Nick. “Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.”
2 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
3 Acocella, Nick. “Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.”
4 Berger, Ralph. “Moe Berg.”
7 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
8 Berger, Ralph. “Moe Berg.”
9 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
11 Acocella, Nick. “Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.”
15 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
17 Tobey W. Nuclear scientists as assassination targets.
19 Bogage, Jacob. “Babe Ruth Is Finally Awarded Medal of Freedom.”
20 Berger, Ralph. “Moe Berg.”
22 Acocella, Nick. “Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.”
24 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
25 “New York Mets 7, St. Louis Cardinals 6.” Retrosheet Boxscore
26 Stang, Mark. Indians Illustrated: 100 Years of Cleveland Indians Photos. (67)
27 Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.”
28 Moe Berg, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/moe-berg.
Acocella, Nick. “Moe Berg: Catcher and Spy.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, https://www.espn.com/classic/biography/s/Berg_Moe.html.
Berger, Ralph. “Moe Berg.” Society for American Baseball Research, Admin /Wp-Content/Uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.Png, 4 Jan. 2012, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/moe-berg/.
Bogage, Jacob. “Babe Ruth Is Finally Awarded Medal of Freedom. Family and Fans Wonder, ‘What the Heck Took so Long?’.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 22 Aug. 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/ct-spt-babe-ruth-medal-freedom-family-20181116-story.html.
Francis, Bill. “#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s Life in Baseball.” Baseball Hall of Fame, https://baseballhall.org/discover/short-stops/moe-bergs-life-in-baseball.
“New York Mets 7, St. Louis Cardinals 6.” Retrosheet Boxscore: New York Mets 7, St. Louis Cardinals 6, https://retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1972/B05290SLN1972.htm.
Stang, Mark. Indians Illustrated: 100 Years of Cleveland Indians Photos. Orange Frazer Press, 2000.
Tobey W. Nuclear scientists as assassination targets. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 2012;68(1):61- 69. doi:10.1177/0096340211433019