Sunday, March 1, 2009

For March 2nd: "…the strangest man ever to play baseball."

Do you know who this is?
-He spoke 12 languages.
-His baseball card is the only baseball card on display at the CIA headquarters.
-His last words were reputed to be “How did the Mets do today?”.

Casey Stengel called him “the strangest man ever to play baseball”. He allegedly spoke 12 languages, received a degree from Princeton – graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in modern languages - and then a law degree from Columbia Law School. With his father’s permission, he decided to play professional baseball before starting his career in law. With his educational background, he became known as the “brainiest guy in baseball”.

Morris “Moe” Berg was born on March 2, 1902, as the third and last child of Russian-Jewish immigrants Bernard and Rose Berg. The Berg’s lived in the Harlem section of New York City, where Morris’ father made a living as a pharmacist. The family would move to West Newark in 1906, and to Newark, New Jersey, in 1910, providing Moe with his home during his formative years. The family lived in a neighborhood with good schools and largely Catholic and Protestant middle class residents.

Moe started playing baseball at the age of seven for the Roseville Methodist Episcopal Church. He continued to play ball through high school – where the Newark Star-Eagle newspaper selected a nine-man ‘dream team’ from the city’s best prep and public high school baseball players, and Moe was named the team’s third baseman. He was sixteen when he graduated from high school. He enrolled in New York University, spending two semesters there, then transferred to Princeton.

At Princeton, Moe majored in Modern Languages (Moe was offered a teaching post in Princeton’s Department of Romance Languages when he graduated), continued to play baseball – and was captain of the team in his Senior year. While not a great hitter, Moe did have a strong throwing arm good baseball sense – even communicating with other players in Latin during games with rival schools. Two New York teams would be interested in Moe, and he would sign a contract in 1923 with the New York Robins – a mediocre team, but one on which Moe would have a better chance to play than on the New York Giants. His first contract was for $5000.

After his first season ended, Moe travelled overseas for the first time, going to Paris. It was in Paris that he developed the lifelong habit of reading several newspapers cover to cover every day. Instead of returning in January 1924 to New York and getting into shape for the upcoming baseball season, Moe continued his European tour by visiting Italy and Switzerland.

When he did return for spring training, his manager noted that his hitting had not improved, and optioned him to another team. Moe would be optioned several times – the Minnesota Millers, the Toledo Mud Hens, and the Reading Keystones. Finally, in 1926, his contract was bought by the Chicago White Sox – and Moe was back in the big leagues.

However, he had started Columbia Law School, and would report late for Spring training because of his class schedule. Because of this, he was benched for the first part of every season – 1926 – 1927. In 1928, his professor arranged a leave of absence from Columbia so that Moe on time for Spring training. He was able to spend several weeks at a lumber camp, which got him in shape for the season. Moe had been moved to the position of catcher.

He would graduate from Columbia in 1930, join a prestigious law firm, and still try to play ball. But injuries to a knee, poor batting, playing for a variety of teams (the White Sox, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Senators, then back to the Cleveland Indians), and being used as a fill-in (third string) for injured catchers all combined to make sporadic seasons for Moe.

Moe was invited at the last minute to join a group of baseball players on a trip to Japan to play exhibition games against Japanese teams. As a reserve player, Moe had little to do, so he took his 16 mm Bell and Howell movie camera and a letter from Movietone News and filmed sights on his trip. He would give the team’s welcome speech (in Japanese) when he arrived in Japan, and would address the Japanese legislature. He also managed to film Tokyo and Tokyo Harbor from the roof of a hospital.

Returning to the States in 1935, he was released by the Indians, picked up by the Boston Red Sox, and would stay with that team for the next five years, playing less than 30 games a season.

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Moe accepted a position with the Office of Inter-American Affairs. At some point in 1942 he previewed the footage of Tokyo that he had taken, a preview which might have been used to plan the Doolittle Raid.

Moe would join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1943, parachuting into occupied Yugoslavia to evaluate the resistance efforts there. He also as assigned to attend scientific lectures in Switzerland on rocketry and atomic weapons; spent time in Germany and Italy to recruit scientists to work for the US. He would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but would turn it down because he was not allowed to explain to his friends how he had earned it.
After the war he was recruited by the CIA in 1952 in a short-lived arrangement to ferret out Soviet atomic secrets, but was unsuccessful in the effort. He would return to the States, and would not hold a job for the rest of his life. He survived by living with friends and relatives, spending his time with his books and his passion for knowledge.

When he was criticized for "wasting" his intellectual talent on the sport he loved, Berg replied, "I'd rather be a ballplayer than a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court".

Moe was a loner, and often seemed out of place in the schools he attended and the world he lived in. The closest he came to acceptance for who he was by others was in the world of baseball, or in the world of his books.

Moe passed away on May 29, 1972, from injuries sustained in a fall at home. He was 70 years old. His remains would be cremated and spread over Mount Scopus in Israel. His last words were reputed to be: “How did the Mets do today?”

They won.


Dawidoff, Nicholas: The Catcher was a Spy : the Mysterious Life of Moe Berg


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