How Moe Berg went from playing for 5 MLB teams to being a US spy in WWII who thwarted Nazi efforts to build a nuclear bomb
Courtesy of Linda McCarthy
- Morris "Moe" Berg spent 15 years playing major league baseball.
- His record on the field was middling, but Berg was distinguished by his pursuits off it - namely, his time as a US spy during World War II.
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Morris "Moe" Berg's dying words - "How did the Mets do today?" - were on brand for the 70-year-old New York native who enjoyed a 15-year career in Major League Baseball before America entered World War II.Sports columnist John Kieran called Berg "The Professor" on account of his reputation as an Ivy League-educated linguist and lawyer, a mentor and coach to younger MLB players, and a newspaper-devouring raconteur who earned fanfare as a repeat contestant on the NBC radio quiz show "Information Please."Advertisement
His 1972 New York Times obituary eulogized, first and foremost, the "catcher in majors who spoke 10 languages."
But the brainy 6-foot-1-inch bullpen catcher with an unspectacular batting average had another career entirely: He was a World War II secret agent who gathered intelligence on three continents for the US government."We often think about athletes just playing ball and going in for records. But Moe, Ted Williams twice, Joe DiMaggio - they went off and risked their lives and their careers to serve," said filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who illuminates Berg's life and legacy in her 2019 documentary, "The Spy Behind Home Plate."
Berg's particular line of work during the war - he ultimately served as a spy for the Manhattan Project while working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA - further differentiated him. Who else would sit in the dugout talking about whether Mussolini would win or not?" Kempner said.As the surviving members of the Greatest Generation dwindle and tensions rise among 21st-century nuclear-armed powers, Kempner emphasizes the need to learn about veterans and remember their contributions and sacrifices."It's important to know who our unknown heroes are and what they did," she said.Advertisement
Here's a window into Berg's life and transition from multilingual ballplayer to World War II nuclear spy.
He was the son of immigrants.
He spent off-seasons studying law at Columbia University and traveling the world.Advertisement
He became a catcher by accident.
He made two trips to Japan "for baseball" in the 1930s, capturing panoramic footage of Tokyo that is believed to have been used to plan the 1942 Doolittle Raid, the US's first bombing raid on Japan in World War II.Advertisement
Back in the US, Berg played on the Washington Senators, frequenting embassy parties in DC, before being dropped and picked up by the Cleveland Indians.
After the All-Americans swept the series and Berg's teammates left Japan, Berg stayed for another month. Back in the US, he played for and then helped coach the Boston Red Sox.
During World War II, he retired his Red Sox uniform to work for the government.Advertisement
The OSS tapped him as a nuclear spy who carried out acts of espionage and sabotage to thwart Hitler's nuclear program.
Berg was recruited to the OSS in 1943.Advertisement
In 1944, Berg moved throughout war-ravaged Italy to track down important Italian scientists and documents in danger of falling into Hitler's hands.
As Manhattan Project scientists raced to develop the atomic bombs that America would drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, its leaders remained concerned with where Hitler stood with any similar efforts.Advertisement
Berg died in Belleville, New Jersey, in 1972 at the age of 70, after a fall at his home.
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