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Spy Notes

Moe Berg's career statistics

Moe Berg: Catcher and spy
By Nick Acocella
Special to

"He [Moe Berg] bluffs his way up onto the roof of the hospital, the tallest building in Tokyo at the time. And from underneath his kimono he pulls out a movie camera. He proceeds to take a series of photos panning the whole setting before him, which includes the harbor, the industrial sections of Tokyo, possibly munitions factories and things like that. Then he puts the camera back under his kimono and leaves the hospital with these films," says Nicholas Dawidoff, a Berg biographer.

Moe Berg has long enjoyed a reputation as the most shadowy player in the history of baseball. Earning more notoriety for being a frontline spy than for being a backup catcher, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in Berg's undercover career. Just Berg being a spy begs the question: How much of the fiction might have been used as cover?

In 1934, five years before he retired as a player, Berg made his second trip to Japan as part of a traveling major league All-Star team. One might wonder what the seldom-used catcher, a .251 hitter that season, was doing playing with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Berg, who spoke Japanese, took home movies of the Tokyo skyline that were used in the planning of General Jimmy Doolittle's 1942 bombing raids on the Japanese capital. The U.S. government wrote a letter to Berg, thanking him for the movies. Biographies, magazine articles and word of mouth have elevated this story into the stuff of legend.

The only utility player to be the subject of three biographies, few of his accomplishments came in the batter's box. It was Berg whom St. Louis Cardinals scout Mike Gonzalez was describing when he coined the phrase "good field, no hit" in the early 1920s.

In his 15 major league seasons, in which he played just 662 games, Berg was a lifetime .243 hitter. He started out as a slick-fielding utility infielder before the Chicago White Sox in 1927 moved him to catcher, where he then found his niche as a substitute backstop, filling that role until he retired in 1939.

In only one year did the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Berg appear in more than 100 games; he played in fewer than 50 games in 12 seasons. But he was a brilliant scholar, picking up degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School and studying philosophy at the Sorbonne.

His linguistic skills inspired this observation by a teammate: "He can speak seven languages, but he can't hit in any of them."

Berg was a hit with people, though. He had a reputation for charm and erudition that brought him introductions to powerful people, such as the Rockefeller family, who ordinarily did not associate with ballplayers.

Morris Berg was born in a cold-water tenement on East 121st Street in Manhattan on March 2, 1902, to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents -- Bernard, a druggist, and Rose. The family moved across the Hudson River to Newark, N.J., in 1906.

At seven, Berg began playing baseball for a Methodist Church team under the pseudonym Runt Wolfe. He later starred at Barringer High School. From there, it was on to Princeton, where he majored in modern languages and played shortstop on the baseball team. He and a teammate, also a linguist, would communicate on the field in Latin.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1923, Berg was signed by Brooklyn, for whom he played shortstop and batted .186 in 49 games. After spending the winter at the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to the United States and played two seasons in the minors.

A student at Columbia Law School, in 1926 he joined the White Sox, who had bought his contract from Reading of the International League. Berg became a catcher by accident the next season. In August 1927, after three Chicago receivers were injured in a matter of days, he volunteered for the job.

A deft handler of pitchers and possessor of a rifle arm, by 1929 he was the White Sox's regular catcher. He hit a career-high .288 in 106 games and received two votes in balloting for the American League's Most Valuable Player.

Unfortunately for Berg, the following year in spring training he suffered a knee injury and spent the rest of his career (with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox after Chicago) as a bench warmer. When he called it quits at 37, he had just 441 hits in 1,812 at-bats, with only six home runs and 206 runs batted in.

After two years as a Red Sox coach, Berg left baseball on Jan. 14, 1942, the same day his father died. Bernard Berg always regarded his son's choice of a career as a waste of a fine intellect. Moe's love of the game - and of the travel and social hobnobbing it afforded him -- was a matter of contention between them to the end.

It is at this point, just after the start of the United States' entry into World War II, that Berg's life became the subject of much speculation. Nelson Rockefeller gave him a job with the Office of Inter-American Affairs that allowed him to travel through South and Central America studying the health and fitness of the population.

He parlayed that post into becoming an officer in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, in 1943.

Berg, according to one biography, was prone to blunders: getting caught trying to infiltrate an aircraft factory during his training, dropping his gun into a fellow passenger's lap, and being recognized by wearing his O.S.S.-issue watch.

Despite these mistakes, Berg was well-regarded enough to have been chosen to carry out one of the O.S.S.' more ambitious endeavors - a plot to possibly assassinate Werner Heisenberg, the head of Nazi Germany's atom-bomb project. Berg, who spoke German fluently, was sent in December 1944 to Zurich to attend a lecture by Heisenberg. Berg's assessment of the situation was that Germany was not close to having a nuclear bomb, and there was never an attempt to kill Heisenberg.

Another story involving Berg's spying career came at the end of the war, when, while traveling through Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia with some other agents, he produced a letter with a big red star on it when asked for credentials. The Americans lacked any authorization, and supposedly what Berg showed the Soviet soldiers was a copy of the Texaco Oil Co. letterhead.

After being forced out of the spy business in the late forties, Berg didn't hold a regular job. A bachelor, he often freeloaded off friends and relatives, especially his brother Sam, who once sent Moe two eviction notices to get him out of his house. After living with Sam for 17 years, he moved in with his sister Ethel for the final eight years of his life.

To the end, however, Berg remained a dandy.

In 1960, out of financial necessity, he was prepared to break his lifelong silence about his supposed exploits and agreed to write a book. However, the project collapsed when the editor glowingly praised the prospective author's movies on the mistaken assumption that he was about to sign a contract with Moe of The Three Stooges.

Berg died at 70 on May 29, 1972 in Belleville, N.J., of an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Ethel took his ashes to Israel. To this day, no one knows where his remains are buried.

In death, as in life, Moe Berg was a mystery.

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