MLB History 101: Moe Berg / The Spy Who Loved Baseball

Cliff Eastham@RedsToTheBoneSenior Writer IIJune 10, 2009

Morris Berg was born on East 121st Street in Manhattan on March 2, 1902. to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Bernard Berg, a druggist, and Rose Tashker.

Moe was their third and last child.  His early residence was only a few blocks away from the Polo Grounds.

Casey Stengel once said of Berg (before he even knew that he was a spy), “He is the strangest man ever to play baseball.” 

He actually was the stereotypical spy: handsome, dark, brilliant, and fluent in several languages. Some have said Berg was the most “scholarly athlete I ever met.” 

His life was not to be defined by the same order as everyone else.  He was not your average working man. 

Berg had a thirst for knowledge and read prolifically.  He allegedly would read 10 newspapers each day.

It was also supposedly said of him, “He can speak fluently in 12 languages and can’t hit in any of them.”

Berg’s first crack at organized baseball was in a church league in Newark, NJ where his father had bought a pharmacy. He played for the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church. As was the custom for Jewish people, Berg renamed himself Runt Wolfe. 

Bernard Berg worked hard and saved so that all of his children could become educated.  Berg’s brother became a doctor and his sister, a teacher. They decided they would like to see Moe become an attorney and so he did.

After being a strong armed, all-city third basemen for Barrington High School, he graduated at 16 and enrolled at New York University.  After only a year he transferred to Princeton University, where he continued to be a loner, due partly to the other students being Protestant and from more affluent backgrounds.

It is known that he studied classical languages: Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit.

He was a starter in the Princeton Tiger lineup for three years.  In his final season, he was the captain of the team and played shortstop.  Moe graduated in 1923, with honors, 24th out of a class of 211.

He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1923 and batted a thin .186 while playing shortstop. He also enrolled at Columbia University and received a law degree in 1930.

From 1926 until 1930, Berg played with the Chicago White Sox where he averaged only .250 with no home runs. 

In 1939, with the Boston Red Sox, Berg was asked by Ted Williams what made Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth such good hitters.  Berg went on to explain his in-depth analysis and finally told Ted that he was more like Shoeless Joe Jackson than the other two, except better.

In 1934, Berg was on a barnstorming team touring Japan.

He entered St. Luke's Hospital carrying a bouquet of flowers intended for Ambassador Joseph Grew's daughter (Mrs. Cecil Burton), who had recently given birth to a daughter. He introduced himself as a friend of Mrs. Burton. 

Instead of going to her room, he went up to the roof.  Using a motion picture camera, he shot the skyline and other important parts of Tokyo.  He never visited Mrs. Burton.

In 1942, General Jimmy Doolittle's pilots viewed Berg's photos before their famous raid on Tokyo in April 1942. However, the pictures were too old to be useful to the pilots.

Berg’s baseball career ended in 1939, and his career statistics were dismal.  A .243 batting average with only six HR and 206 RBI in 15 years with an OPS+ of 49. 

In 1943, Berg was recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor of the CIA). His first assignment was to parachute into Yugoslavia to gather information.

While playing with the Washington Senators, his roommate Dave Harris once said, “Moe, I can drive in more runs in a month than you smart guys can think across the plate all season."

One of Berg's many eccentricities involved the newspaper. He would not let anyone touch his newspapers until he had read them. If anyone did touch them, Berg considered them dead and would go out and buy the papers again.

Even in a snowstorm Berg would go out to buy papers if someone had touched them before he did.

Berg was a proud man.  When asked to collaborate on his biography, Berg became indignant when the writer mistakenly thought he was Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.

He also was supposedly awarded the Medal of Merit but declined to accept it because he wouldn’t be able to tell his friends how he had earned it.  His sister, Ethel, received it for him posthumously.

On February 21, 1939, Berg made his first of three appearances on the radio quiz show, Information, Please!

After missing the first question, Berg put on a dazzling performance. Of his appearance, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told him, "Berg, in just thirty minutes you did more for baseball than I've done the entire time I've been commissioner".

On his third appearance, Clifton Fadiman, the moderator, started asking Berg too many personal questions. Berg did not answer any more questions and never appeared on the show again.

Regular show guest and sportswriter John Kieran later said that "Moe was the most scholarly professional athlete (I) ever knew."

Little about Berg makes sense. How did he last so long in the majors, continuously from 1926 to 1939, when he was no better than a mediocre player?

He may have been a fine catcher, but he was a weak hitter in an era of heavy hitters, when weak hitters didn't last long.

His more or less exact contemporaries in the American League alone include Gehrig, Gehringer, Grove, Lyons, Cochrane, Dickey, and other players of similar caliber.

Was he kept on major league rosters at the behest of the government for his undercover abilities? Maybe, but the Tokyo episode, in which he supposedly passed himself off as Japanese, has the implausibility of a bad spy novel or movie.

Perhaps he did everything claimed for him, but perhaps he had an overly romanticized fantasy life and was a master con; the finger pressed to the lips is a masterful touch.

He was intelligent, to be sure, but it's also possible he was just plain unbalanced or wanted to make himself appear more important than he was.

Moe Berg died on May 29, 1972, at age 70, from injuries sustained in a fall at home. A nurse at the Newark hospital where he died recalled his final words as, "How did the Mets do today?" (They won). His remains were cremated and spread over Mount Scopus in Israel.

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