An absorbing biography of Moe Berg, baseball player and WWII spy

The Catcher Was a Spy is a biography of Moe Berg.

Moe Berg (1902-72) was one of the most confounding men who ever donned a glove in Major League Baseball. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, earned a law degree from Columbia, and studied linguistics at the Sorbonne. Berg had a fair command of six foreign languages and could understand many more. He pored through up to ten daily newspapers and wore one of eight identical black suits every day. And during World War II, after a nineteen-year career as a catcher for a succession of American League teams, he enlisted in the OSS and pulled off one of the agency’s most spectacular espionage coups. But nearly all this information has come out elsewhere. If that’s all there were to the story, a biography of Moe Berg wouldn’t be worth reading.

Yet, there was much more to the man. Beyond the superficial facts, no one knew him. He never married and had no close friends. Even his brother and sister found him mysterious. Happily, Nicholas Dawidoff dug deeply into the man’s past and revealed what few knew about him. His biography of Moe Berg, The Catcher Was a Spy, is outstanding.

The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff (1994) 437 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

Image of Moe Berg, the subject of this biography.
Morris “Moe” Berg played for a succession of professional baseball teams, most notably the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Senators. Image: New York Times

A life story in four stages

Dawidoff’s biography of Moe Berg is organized conventionally, relating the story of the man’s curious life in roughly chronological order.

Early life as the son of immigrants

Morris, known as Moe from the start, was the youngest of three children of hard-working Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who had moved to a Christian neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Berg was a prodigy of sorts, learning to read almost from the time he started talking. He was an outstanding student and gained admission to Princeton. There, once again a Jew isolated among Christians, he proved himself to be a star student. He studied philology and phonetics and picked up numerous languages.

But Berg gained fame at Princeton as a shortstop on the baseball diamond. He was “the best baseball player in the school’s history.” The press took notice, but his father didn’t. In fact, throughout Berg’s life, the old man didn’t attend a single one of the baseball games Berg played in. Bernard Berg was disdainful of sports and pressured his son to leave baseball to become a lawyer.

19-year baseball career

Berg’s standout performance at Princeton gained him a berth with the Brooklyn Dodgers, then known as the Robins. During the nineteen seasons that ensued, he played for a succession of professional teams, most of the time as a catcher. Although he demonstrated early flashes of stardom, those episodes were brief and rare. Most of the time he was a benchwarmer who rarely ventured onto the field.

“The brainiest man in baseball”

Moe Berg was “The brainiest man in baseball.” As his obituary in the New York Times noted, “‘He can speak 10 languages,’ his friends used to joke, ‘but he can’t hit in any of them.'” However, managers kept him on the roster because he boosted team morale as a friend and sometime mentor to other players, enthralling them with stories about his adventures in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. And it surely didn’t hurt that he was a magnet for sportswriters, too. “Every day Berg sat in the dugout before the game and told stories to crowds of reporters.” The press couldn’t get enough of “Professor Berg.” In fact, as this perceptive biography of Moe Berg makes clear, it was the press, and especially the New York Times sports columnist John Kieran, who “created the public Berg.”

“A life of abiding strangeness”

“There were crumbs of truth in every story,” Dawidoff notes, “yet the jolly world of Professor Berg was false at the center. This was not the man, it was caricature on a grand scale. Which didn’t bother Berg. In fact, he encouraged the burlesque and guided the creation of this shimmering distortion.” The reality was starkly different. “Berg’s was a life of abiding strangeness. The secret world of Moe Berg was charming and seamy, vivid and unsettling, wonderful and sad.”

Familiarity with at least 16 languages

Berg’s command of languages was endlessly fascinating to those around him, but exaggerations abounded. Press reports variously credited him with speaking—fluently, of course—anywhere from ten to twenty-seven languages. In fact, when he applied to the OSS much later, “Berg lists his French, Spanish, and Portuguese as ‘fair,’ and his Italian, German, and Japanese as ‘slight.'” However, Dawidoff reports that “during his life he also took a passing interest in, among other languages, Russian, Polish, Mandarin, Chinese, Arabic, Old High German, and Bulgarian.” And at various points throughout this book, Dawidoff also has Berg speaking Greek and Latin and reading Sanskrit (which was not a spoken language).

War work for the OSS

Image of Werner Heisenberg, a major figure in this biography of Moe Berg.
Nobel laureate physicist Werner Heisenberg, who led Nazi Germany’s quest for the atomic bomb in World War II. Image: Askey Physics

Moe Berg’s fame as a spy rests on a single encounter with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who headed Nazi Germany’s quest for an atomic bomb. The OSS had dispatched him to Switzerland in December 1944. There, he was to attend a lecture by Werner Heisenberg and attempt to ascertain whether the Nazis were on the verge of building a bomb—or even had one already. He had been tutored in nuclear physics and devoured books on the subject in preparation—to such an extent that some physicists expressed amazement with his understanding. If Berg determined the Germans were on track to a bomb, he was to stand up in the lecture hall, pull out a revolver he’d been issued, and shoot Heisenberg.

His most famous exploit was a bust

Fortunately, there was not even a hint in the physicist’s lecture that he was even engaged in nuclear research, and Berg left the man in peace. Ironically, Heisenberg was indeed conducting research in nuclear physics. But he was struggling against scientific roadblocks and interference by Nazi functionaries. And the Allies had already received through other means abundant evidence that the Nazi atomic bomb program was floundering, years behind the Manhattan Project. But of course Berg didn’t know any of this, and nor did his handlers in the OSS.

Befriending prominent German, Swiss, and French scientists

Some of Berg’s other work for the OSS was of greater consequence for the war effort and the Allies’ postwar scientific research efforts. Berg was detailed to the Allies’ Alsos Mission, which had been organized primarily to dig up information about the Nazi bomb project but secondarily to connect with Axis scientists, learn whether they were developing biological or chemical weapons, secure Nazi supplies of uranium and heavy water, and begin the process of enticing the best scientists to move to Britain or the United States. Berg clashed with Colonel Boris Pash, the commander of the Alsos Mission, and operated independently as a consequence. But it was his efforts befriending prominent German, Swiss, and French scientists that helped lure them westward as the war wound down. Pash and his team were less successful.

Life after World War II

Berg lived for twenty-five years after he left the OSS in 1947. Although he doggedly hid the information from everyone outside his family, he lived with his brother “Dr. Sam” from 1947 to 1964 and then, after Dr. Sam kicked him out, with his spinster sister Ethel until his death in 1972. In succession, his two siblings housed, fed, and dressed him and gave him money for his nearly incessant travel and incidentals. But neither of them could figure him out. At one point during the war, “Berg [had] brought Chico Marx along for dinner [with his brother] one evening. Sam hadn’t known that his brother socialized with the Marx brothers, but Berg wasn’t explaining that, either.” In fact, Berg was a celebrity of sorts and connected with a great many luminaries of the era. He even spent a couple of lively afternoons on a visit to Princeton talking about baseball and relativity with Albert Einstein. It seems he could speak about nearly any subject at length and in detail—and in several languages.

Berg was not among the one out of ten OSS employees asked to join the new CIA in 1947. Under wartime conditions and Bill Donovan‘s undisciplined management, the OSS had been a freewheeling operation that tolerated Berg’s eccentricities and his occasional disappearances. The CIA would not. Apart from a few brief stretches when the agency later hired him on a contract basis, and for other short periods when friends employed him as a way to support him, he never worked for the rest of his life.

What might a psychiatrist say about this man’s life?

At some ill-defined point, eccentricity crosses the line into mental illness. I’m no psychiatrist—my brother is the shrink in the family—but it seems clear to me that Moe Berg was ill for a great many years. Dawidoff doesn’t indulge the temptation to engage in psychological speculation. Like other writers, he repeatedly refers to Berg as eccentric. But surely the man’s surpassingly strange behavior over a quarter-century following the war would merit a psychiatric evaluation. You might well imagine that a biography of Moe Berg would include such speculation.

About the author

Image of Nicholas Dawidoff, author of this biography of Moe Berg.
The author during a term as a Distinguished Fellow at Princeton. Image: Princeton Alumni Weekly

The Catcher Was a Spy was the first of Nicholas Dawidoff‘s six nonfiction books to date, one of four about professional American sports. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and a former Guggenheim Fellow.

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