Spy Catcher: Going Behind the Plate (and Behind Enemy Lines) with Moe Berg
Welcome back to Out of the Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.
Now that it's October, and the Major League Baseball Postseason is upon us, it's only fitting that today's post honors Moe Berg, the Major League catcher, linguist, lawyer and spy whom Casey Stengel called, "the strangest fellah who ever put on a uniform."
Berg's story -- the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants who grew up to play 17 seasons in the Majors, learn up to a dozen languages, earn a law degree from Columbia, and spy for the Office of Strategic Services -- is as exciting as it is unbelievable. But, the collection of Berg's papers and personal ephemera at the New York Public Library helps bring the extraordinary man to life.
A letter from one of Berg's old Princeton classmates included in the Library's collection begins like this:
Since that night in Claridge's when you went off to Switzerland to capture that scientist, I have only seen you in elevators or hotel lobbies."
The Scientist in question was Werner Heisenberg, since Moe was deemed the United States' best hope against the Nazi nuclear program: as a member of the OSS , Berg was assigned to attend Heisenberg's lecture in Zurich, and shoot him point blank if he was too close to building a nuclear weapon.
According to Berg's obituary in the New York Times, when he was chosen for the mission, “the commanding general’s aide reportedly said, ‘Do you know what they gave us? A ballplayer named Moe Berg. You ever heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ the General is reported to have replied, ‘He’s the slowest baserunner in the American League.”
Berg wasn't quick on the bases or quick on the trigger. Since, he correctly concluded, there was no Nazi nuclear bomb, he didn't assassinate Heisenberg. (Pictured at left is Berg's own annotated copy of David Irving's history of nuclear research in the Third Reich, The German Atomic Bomb)
Berg was not only right about Heisenberg's bomb but also he was correct in predicting that the scientist could be lured to his potential demise in Zurich by schnapps, cheese and chocolate, all of which were unavailable in Germany at the time.
As for the elevators and hotel lobbies, Berg was a famously mysterious individual, dubbed -- again by Stengel -- as "the Mystery Catcher."
Mystery Moe was born in a cold-water tenement on 121st street in 1902. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton where he was the star shortstop on a team that regularly shouted instructions back and forth in Latin. Berg got his degree in Modern Languages, so Latin wasn't the only tongue he mastered. At the beginning of his professional career, he actually used Major League Baseball as a way to finance further language study at the Sorbonne. All told, he spoke at least 10 languages, and up to a dozen (but couldn't hit in any of them).
Berg collected World Series pins -- pictured here, but he was never a star player. He averaged .243 and hit 6 home runs in 17 seasons. According to the New York Times, his fellow ball player Buck Crouse summed up the situation bluntly: "I don't care how many of them college degrees you got. They ain't learned you to hit that curveball no better than me."
Berg himself said, "I have met many men in the Major Leagues 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 own two feet and face his opponents. Philology 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."
The joy of baseball sustained Berg throughout his life, but when the war came, love of the game paled in comparison to the situation overseas. In 1939 Berg said, "Europe is in flames, withering in a fire set by Hitler. All over that continent, men women and children are dying. Soon we, too, will be involved. And what am I doing? I’m sitting in the bull pen, telling jokes to the relief pitchers.”
With the assistance of Nelson Rockefeller, Berg went from Major League catcher to Spy Catcher. First, he gathered intelligence in Latin America for Rockefeller's Office of Inter-American Affairs, then joined the OSS, under whose auspices he was dropped into Tito's Yugoslavia, and Mussolini's Italy, before his appointment in Zurich with Heisenberg.
Berg may have hung up his mitt in favor of a cloak and dagger, but he remained a fan to the end of his life. Ever the New Yorker, his last words were, "How did the Mets do today?" They won.
If you'd like to learn more about New York's extraordinary wartime spies, sign up for our walking tour. Diamonds and Sabotage: Clandestine Affairs and Wartime Intrigue in Midtown!