BULL STREET - The art of the Con

Moe Berg

Would believe that an American League Catcher of a little less than average talent was a big-time spy for the United States Government?  Well it is true and his name believe it or not was Moe Berg. Berg was born in Harlem in the year 1902 and his parents had recently immigrated to the United States. Early on, they moved to New Jersey and Berg began playing baseball for a Church team on the name of Runt Wolf.  Apparently, Berg who Jewish didn’t want anyone to know that he was involved with playing baseball for the gentiles. However, he soon grew up and went on to star on his high and college teams. His undergraduate college was Princeton where he majored in modern languages, graduated magna cum laude and played shortstop on the baseball team.

After graduating from college, Berg played minor league baseball while attending Columbia Law School. He was invited to become a professor at Princeton but chose a baseball career instead. He eventually became the regular catcher for the Chicago White Sox and amazingly had accumulated a speaking knowledge of French, Spanish, Sanskrit, Latin, Japanese and German. However, his chosen career was baseball but during the 1929 Spring Training, he seriously injured his knee and from that time on became a backup catcher for Cleveland, Washington and Boston. During that time, he appeared on numerous radio quiz programs and wowed the audience with his knowledge of extremely esoteric material. However, in spite of the fact that he was not knocking the walls down with his hitting, Berg was sent to Japan with an American All-Star team which included Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig to show the Japanese what the American pastime was all about.

While the rest of the team was out having a great time, Berg spent his hours taking home movies of the city of Tokyo from almost every single vantage point which included extraordinary movies of the shipyards and steel mills. There is little question that the then only play in baseball that talked Japanese and could get around the city of Tokyo on his own was planted on the team by American intelligence agencies. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Berg got unto the airwaves using a short-wave radio and chastised them in their native language. “I ask you, what sound basis is there for enmity between two people who enjoy the same national sport? … But you betrayed your friends - you made a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor…”The pictures that he took of the city were the ones used to brief General Jimmy Doolittle for his raid on Tokyo in 1942 eight years earlier. For his outstanding photographic skills, Berg received a commendation from the United States Government; however, he didn’t always stay in the background. Casey Stengel was right when he called Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.”

There weren’t a lot of so-so catchers that could speak both Japanese and German hanging around, especially not any that had graduated with magna cum laude honors from Princeton. When his baseball career ended, World War II was approaching and Nelson Rockefeller hired him to work for the Office of Inter-American Affairs. This gave Berg the opportunity to size up South and Central America for the coming U.S. war effort. When he performed brilliantly, he went to work as a senior officer in the Office of Strategic Services, under General Wild Bill Donovan.

While Berg was brilliant, he was also a tad klutzy and when he was spotted as an O.S.S operative because he was wearing a watch unique to that service, he became so befuddled that he dropped a loaded revolver into a fellow passenger’s lap. In spite of an occasion laps, Berg was highly regarded and was picked to assassinate Werner Heisenberg who was running German’s atomic program. At the time, the United States had no clue as to where that country stood in terms of an atomic bomb and Berg’s orders were to eliminate him if they appeared to be close.

Berg arranged to be invited to a dinner in Switzerland attended by Heisenberg, during the meal Heisenberg indicated to the dinner guests that he expected that Germany would lose the war. Berg interpreted that statement to mean that they were not close to developing a bomb and did not carry out the assignation. When the information was relayed to President Roosevelt, he said, “Let’s pray Heisenberg is right…my regards to the catcher. “ However, eventually the war ended and Berg was lost without his espionage duties. He didn’t seem to want to work and really didn’t want to stay home. He moved in with his brother and lived with him for the next 17-years, hardly what his sibling had expected.

Berg never married and never really held a job other than baseball and spying. He was totally unequipped to handle real-world situations and was content to be everyone’s guest at dinner constantly retelling his baseball and war stories. However, Brother Sam had enough and gently got Moe to move out by sending him eviction notices in the mail. Moe got the message but did not react exactly as Sam thought he would. Moe moved in with his sister and lived with her for almost the next decade.  Berg died as he had lived, talking it up. His last words were “How did the Mets do today?”

 

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