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Moe Berg: Catcher, Lawyer, Horndog, Spy

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Casey Stengel called Moe Berg "the strangest man to ever play in baseball." He didn't live to meet Joe Mauer.

I'm not Werner Heisenberg, but I played him on TV.
I'm not Werner Heisenberg, but I played him on TV.
Greg Williams/Getty Images

It's time for another episode in

terror medeium

(Mostly the Red Sox, really, but played for Washington too. And the Minneapolis Millers! This is long, I warn you, so it takes a full five minutes to read. But I think it's my favorite baseball story I've ever heard.)

It was said of Moe Berg that "he could speak twelve languages, and couldn't hit in any of them." But Berg rather liked having things said about him. Just so long as they supported the mystique he liked to create for himself.

An exceptional student, Berg was accepted to Princeton at a time when very few Jews were admitted to that exclusive school. He played on the baseball team in an era when college athletics were bigger than any other sport than MLB baseball. And college players at "prestige" institutions were celebrated above all -- to be rich, headed for a great rich-guy career, and an athlete to boot was sort of the American ideal.

(Berg majored in languages, and communicated with fellow infielders in Latin.)

After Princeton, Berg bounced around between several MLB teams. He certainly understood the game, and had a strong, accurate arm, yet was prone to mental errors as an shortstop. It took an emergency injury for Berg to try catching, and, defensively, he was astounding. An infielder can go the entire game without any hits in their direction. Berg's mind was far too busy for that; he got bored. A catcher is involved in every pitch.

Berg was routinely late to spring training. One year, he was studying at the Sorbonne, in Paris. Other years he was working on his law degree. (He eventually passed the bar and for a while practiced law -- back then, most active ballplayers had off-season jobs.)

It's a tribute to Berg's personal charm that he managed to stay in baseball until retirement age despite his apparent lack of interest in playing, and his rather mediocre bat. He appeared to like his fellow players, and worked great with pitchers -- but what he really wanted was for baseball to pay for his other pursuits. A legal office was not his style. He wanted to travel, to meet people he found interesting. With baseball, he could.

And here's where the story starts to get weird.

In 1934, MLB sponsored a All-Star team visit to Japan, featuring such notables as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Berg was included as he'd done a little coaching in Japan on a goodwill tour before, and spoke the language fairly well.

(One night, an inebriated Ruth kept grabbing at a hostess. Berg wrote on a scrap of paper, in Japanese, the way for her to phonetically say, in English, "fuck you Babe Ruth.")

While skipping one game in Tokyo, Berg blew off a meeting with an ambassador's daughter (he liked the ladies) and visited a hospital where he used a handheld movie camera to take footage of the city skyline from his high vantage point.

Later, Berg would hint that this was because he was on a secret mission from the US government to scout Japan. Berg also said that this footage was later used by planners of the 1942 first bombing raid on Japan. It doesn't show an awful lot, it's doubtful the footage affected raid planning in any way -- the main problem was making sure planes had enough fuel to complete the raid and return to base. And Berg was almost certainly not employed by the government then.

Still, Berg loved playing the International Man Of Mystery. Sometimes he'd go out for double-dates with teammates. Sometimes he'd be on the town with a date, bump into a teammate, turn away and say nothing at all (not always bringing the date with him on his escape!)

After Pearl Harbor, as his playing career was winding down, Berg used his connections (he'd met and charmed rich guy/politician Nelson Rockefeller) to get an interview with the Office Of Strategic Services -- the forerunner to today's CIA. Berg brought his home movies from Japan. Whether or not that footage was ever used, the OSS saw a bright man with a gift for languages who blended equally well with anti-semites at Princeton or working-class jocks on baseball teams.

And who disliked prying eyes into his personal life. Sportswriters exaggerated Berg's intellectual prowess in funny contrast to his limited batting skills; Berg enjoyed and encouraged the authors. His reputation got him onto the panel of a popular radio trivia show; Berg stumped academics, and audiences adored it. Berg was asked back, and the show's host asked too many questions about Berg's life. Berg clammed up and never returned to the show.

AKA, the perfect spy.

The Uncertainty Principle

After a few unsatisfying OSS assignments in South America (interesting culture but far from the action), Berg got a transfer to Europe, and access to possibly the the war's most closely-guarded secret: atomic bombs. How close was Germany to building a bomb? The OSS was fairly certain Germany's resources were utterly spread thin by late 1943, still -- it's the job of an intelligence service to know, not guess. (Or back then it was.)

Berg's job was to talk with physicists in Italy as the Allies liberated more and more territory. Berg could get by in Italian, and understood enough physics to figure out most of what they were saying. What had they heard about Germany's atomic program? And what did they know about the location of Werner Heisenberg?

Heisenberg was one of the world's top physicists and, while loathing the Nazis, a staunch German patriot. (My country, right or wrong.) In 1942 he'd met with an old, dear friend, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, and speculated on the morality of scientists pursuing research that might be used for atomic warfare. Bohr, horrified, ended their friendship, fled the country, and told British intelligence he was convinced Heisenberg headed Germany's A-bomb program.

(Heisenberg claimed later that, knowing their conversation was under surveillance, he was trying to tell Bohr how he was purposely undermining the project. Bohr didn't believe this. They never met again, although there's an interesting BBC film about the encounter, "Copenhagen." Starring James Bond as Heisenberg.)

OSS had dicked around ideas of kidnapping well-hidden Heisenberg; Berg was thought of in some of these plots. After months in Italy collecting useful information about German non-nuclear weapons programs, Berg learned that Heisenberg would be speaking at a physics conference in Zurich, Switzerland.

Kidnapping seemed too difficult. The plan, instead, became that Berg would attend the conference, try to meet Heisenberg if he could, and get a sense if the physicist was hinting at any new atomic discovery.

If Berg thought Heisenberg was close to an A-bomb, his mission was to kill him.

Berg attended the conference, took copious notes. Through an OSS connection, he was invited to a dinner party Heisenberg attended. Gun in pocket (and cyanide pill, lest he be captured), Berg interrupted Heisenberg's walk back to the hotel. Heisenberg confirmed what he'd said at the dinner party; while he wanted the Nazis gone, he wished it didn't mean a German defeat. A defeat Heisenberg thought inevitable.

Berg took this to mean the Germans were nowhere near building a bomb. Mission aborted.

Moe: The Missing Years

Post-war, the OSS wondered where Berg's receipts were. He'd stayed in the swankiest hotels, eaten at the most expensive restaurants. He'd never kept a receipt. And secret services account for every penny spent (or back then they did.) They argued; Berg was offended, and refused a Medal of Freedom for his service.

No longer a spy, Berg could have gone back to the law, or been a baseball coach (he had standing offers from both.) Or tried a new profession; he was certainly a good learner and good teacher. So what did he do?

Nothing. For almost the rest of his life, Berg did nothing.

He lived off his charm, off his many connections, and in between visits, off his family. Berg would befriend train conductors and get free train rides. He'd go from town to town, watching ballgames, being hosted by old friends, meeting new ones. He carried his one outfit with him and washed it in the hosts' bathtub.

He was employed by the CIA for a brief period in 1952, to speak with his old European physics connections and find out what they knew of Soviet atomic research. Berg did what he wanted to, as usual, kept no expense receipts, as usual, and this time produced no valuable information. He never worked for the CIA again (although he did ask.)

Berg didn't stop insinuating that he did "secret work." It was why he could never talk about his personal life (as opposed to sharing anecdotes, which were his primary social currency.) It's why, while he hit on everything in sight (including, in old age, some disturbingly young women) he never married. It's why he never stayed in a place too long. Always, he had important things to get back to. What were they? Berg would hold a finger to his lips. (As Ted Williams labeled him, "The Mystery Man.")

Some were fascinated by him. A few loathed him. Others took him in out of pity, replaced his fraying clothes. One doctor performed a hernia surgery for him; Berg had lived with a huge abdominal protrusion for years, refusing to use the VA out of anger over those old receipts.

As he aged, Berg grew more eccentric. He stockpiled newspapers and books (for free, of course) faster than he could read them, and clutter accumulated in family homes. Berg's brother, a respected pathologist who became livid when even close friends refused to call him "Doctor," eventually kicked Berg out. After that, Berg roomed with his sister, a gifted schoolteacher and former aspiring actress (she looks lovely in photos) who had developed schizophrenia. She hid under her bed during thunderstorms and told pregnant women they would probably die.

Oedipus Wrecks

Why did Berg, who could have done anything, choose to do nothing?

Nicholas Dawidoff wrote a fascinating biography of Berg, from which I stole all of this. And I don't care: "The Catcher Was A Spy" is being made into a movie starring Paul Rudd, so Dawidoff has that Hollywood cash cash money money now, I can steal with a clear conscience. Dawidoff writes:

Berg ... ever on the move, always avoiding sustained relationships where people might get a get clear look at him. And he was equally determined to skirt situations where he might be forced to look at himself. Berg suffered from an insecurity so severe that at times it debilitated him completely. More often, his lack of self-esteem banished all tranquility from his life.

Dawidoff knows a good deal about human nature. For years, I moved every ten months or so to a new city. And it was pretty much exactly for this reason. But Dawidoff is careful to make clear; what he has is a theory. Moe Berg was careful not to leave much actual evidence.

Berg's father, who despised religious Jews (yet taught Moe Hebrew) demanded a great deal from his children. He despised Moe's interest in baseball. Bernard Berg never attended one of Moe's games, not when Moe was little, not when Moe played in MLB. Bernard once wrote his adult son:

"'A great deal of base making money interpreted as 'sport' is made by playing made to order, stuffed athletes in the human arena at the baseball diamond ... jumping jacks, soon to be dropped with degenerate hearts, deformed, rough-necky. glorifying in their former performances with an obscure future, and the public hoodwinked, cheated with pockets inside out applauding, yelling getting crazy.'"

(Bernard sounds like the original Internet troll. Or he'd had a vision of the future Dan Gladden. I kid, I kid!)

Sometimes, if the seed of self-hatred is planted early enough and deeply enough, it's like trying to get rid of a dead stump in your yard: the roots spread everywhere. Moe Berg was clearly brilliant, clearly talented in many areas, yet chose the life of a Mystery Man.

People. Who the fuck knows.

ESPN's always-excellent "30 For 30" series has a solid, if overdramatic, 20-minute feature on Berg here. It's narrated by Bill "Spaceman" Lee, himself a bit of a quirky dude. If you're curious about what Berg looked like, it has great archival footage. I think, in some shots, he looks like "Mad Men"'s Jon Hamm -- who played another mystery man.