The enigmatic Moe Berg: Jewish baseball catcher and wartime spy

By Bill Simons

On Monday, January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, setting in motion a trajectory that would soon enable him to declare a national emergency and seize dictatorial powers. In his book “Mein Kampf,” Hitler had previously identified his objectives – remilitarizing the German nation, pursuing territorial expansion and eliminating the Jewish menace. With fiery torches ablaze, Nazis marched through the cold winter streets of Berlin on the night of Hitler’s ascension. Improbably, a Jewish baseball player, Moe Berg, arrived in Berlin on January 30. 

Berg (1902-72) was perhaps the most brilliant and enigmatic individual to ever play Major League Baseball. In contrast to the isolationist and appeasement policies of Western democracies during the 1930s, Berg was concerned about the threat of international aggression in Europe and Asia. Following the 1932 MLB season, Berg, along with two other major leaguers, had accepted an invitation to conduct baseball clinics in Japan to upgrade the proficiency of university players. Upon completion of his baseball responsibilities in Japan, Berg, now alone, undertook travel adventures in Asia and Europe, bringing him to Berlin on January 30, 1933. 

Named to a major league all-star that toured Japan in the autumn of 1934, Berg returned to Asia. Unlike Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, there were non-baseball reasons for the inclusion of Berg on this all-star team that played exhibition games in Japan. Berg, under ambiguous circumstances, absented himself from the Friday, November 29, 1934, American-Japanese all-star game. Instead, dressed in a black kimono, Berg traveled incognito to St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo, climbed the steps to the hospital rooftop and surreptitiously filmed industrial, fuel, military, transportation and government facilities – footage that General Jimmy Doolittle, eight years later, may have employed during his inaugural air raid of the Japanese mainland. 

Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Berg felt a great affinity for Japan and its people. On February 24, 1942, by powerful shortwave radio, Berg – purportedly at the request of the U.S. government – addressed the Japanese people in their own language “as a friend” who “found much to admire” in their history, character and culture, but who, now in the midst of military conflict, called upon them to reject their misguided warlords.

Despite intellectual gifts that potentially provided more lucrative options, Berg, secretive and mysterious, chose to devote 15 seasons (1923, 1926-39) to MLB as a weak hitting, but good defensive backup catcher on five different teams, as well as serving a stint as a Boston Red Sox bullpen coach (1940-41). In addition to the Red Sox, Berg played for the Brooklyn Robins, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Washington Senators. With a career batting average of .243, the “good field, no hit” journeyman set the American League record, since eclipsed, of catching 117 games without an error. 

A gifted intellectual, Berg numbered Albert Einstein amongst his discussion partners. From foreign-language newspapers to scholarly monographs, he was an omnivorous reader. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Berg won acclaim for baseball and linguists, yet remained a loner. He continued his linguistic studies at the Sorbonne, gaining mastery of diverse languages, and earned a law degree from Columbia University. Displays of erudition, burnished by stellar appearances on the popular radio quiz show “Information, Please!” and authorship of a literary and insightful baseball article, “Pitchers and Catchers,” for the highbrow Atlantic Monthly magazine, granted Berg a certain niche celebrity, the catcher as intellectual.

During World War II, Berg served as a spy for the United States Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Under its legendary founding director, “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS recruited talented intelligence agents with unconventional backgrounds, including the young historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., future celebrity cooking guru Julia Childs and a former baseball catcher, able to keep secrets and possessed of linguistic expertise. Berg’s highest priority OSS assignment was to determine Nazi Germany’s progress in developing an atomic bomb. Possession of nuclear weapons would have potentially enabled Hitler to reverse Nazi fortunes, inflict massive destruction and win World War II. 

Monitoring German and Italian scientists to secure information exposed Berg to peril, at times bringing him into militarily contested areas amidst hostile fire. His espionage activities yielded significant data and important contacts. Berg’s relationship with the Italian scientist Antonio Ferri culminated in the latter’s relocation to the United States, where he became an important asset to the Allied cause.

The physicist Werner Heisenberg directed Germany’s nuclear research. It was essential for U.S. intelligence to know how close Heisenberg was to presenting Hitler with an operational atomic bomb; Berg was charged with this task. When Heisenberg lectured at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology in neutral Switzerland on December 18, 1944, Berg sat in the lecture hall in the guise of a graduate student and then eavesdropped on the scientist’s post-presentation chats at the university and at a dinner party. Berg even managed to accompany a solitary Heisenberg on a nocturnal stroll. Concealing a pistol to assassinate Heisenberg should the scientist suggest that completion of Germany’s atomic project was imminent, Berg also carried a lethal cyanide tablet to commit suicide to preclude his own capture. Once Heisenberg privately acknowledged his assessment that Germany would lose the war, Berg knew that Nazi atomic research was not near completion. Ultimately, neither the pistol nor the cyanide was necessary. 

The stress of his wartime espionage work contributed to changes in Berg’s personality. During the final 27 years of his life, Berg grew more reclusive, eccentric, aberrant and financially insecure. Sworn to secrecy concerning his OSS heroics, Berg rejected the Medal of Freedom; the accompanying certificate noted “exceptionally meritorious service of high valor to the war effort.” During his lifetime, the specifics of Berg’s dangerous spy assignments were not known to the general public. 

Familial antecedents, history and identity, rather than theology or institutional affiliation, defined Berg’s Judaism. His father, Bernard, distanced the family from Judaism through residence in a Gentile neighborhood, assertive assimilation and non-ethnic association. This left Berg to be identified – and discriminated against – as a Jew by the world without giving him a clear sense of what it meant to be a Jew. At age 7, Berg played baseball for a church team under the name Runt Wolfe. At Princeton, Berg refused an invitation to join an elite eating club when told that a condition of membership was that he would not nominate another Jew for membership. Berg’s implacable commitment to the defeat of the Third Reich related both to his American and Jewish identities. As a Jewish spy in wartime Europe, he confronted mortal danger. At journey’s end, Berg’s cremated ashes were deposited in Israel, proximate to Mount Scopus, overlooking Jerusalem. 

Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.