Your inclination in reading about the fascinating life of Moe Berg, subject of the opening chapter of Sam Kean’s brilliantly told story of renegade scientists and spies who sabotaged the Nazi atomic bomb, will be to think that somebody should have made a movie about him. A son of Jewish immigrants born at the turn of the 20th century, Berg attended Princeton University and Columbia Law School, but his passion was baseball. Sure enough, filmmaker Aviva Kempner has explored the life and exploits of Berg in a documentary about the major league baseball catcher who is said to have spoken seven languages but was unable to hit in any of them, and served as a spy in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), a World War II forerunner of the CIA.
And if you’re tempted to doubt that the tale spun by Sam Kean sounds too Hollywood to be true, it is Snopes verifiable as accurate. Here is a brief synopsis of Berg’s undercover role on a website documenting activities of the OSS:
“Major League Baseball player Moe Berg was recruited by the OSS in 1943 because of his language skills, assigned to the Secret Intelligence branch, and took part in missions in the Caribbean, South America, France, England, Norway, Italy, and the Balkans. Later, Berg was briefed in nuclear physics, and sent to Zürich, Switzerland posing as a Swiss physics student, with the mission of attending a lecture at the Technische Hochschule by Germany’s top nuclear scientist, Werner Heisenberg. His orders were to kill the scientist if he determined that the Germans were far along in their efforts to build an atomic weapon; he found that the scientist was not a threat. Berg was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but declined to accept it as he was forbidden from saying what he had done to receive the award. He is the only former Major League Baseball player whose baseball card is displayed at CIA headquarters.”
Berg’s story was captured in part by ESPN Classic in this mini-documentary.
As Ralph Berger notes in his SABR piece, Casey Stengel, an eccentric man himself, called Moe Berg “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” And while he will never be enshrined in Baseball’s Hall of Fame for his statistics, he is duly noted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation for participating in the Manhattan Project’s Alsos Mission that helped turn the tide of World War II. Yet as the Jewish Week of New York observed this May, Berg was a mystery in so many ways. Perhaps it was his intrigue with the espionage and counter-espionage that occurs so subtly in baseball that whet Berg’s appetite for the real thing. Consider this excerpt from a penetrating article that he wrote about the sport for a 1941 issue of the Atlantic magazine:
“Signal stealing is possible in many ways. The most prevalent self-betrayals are made by the pitcher and catcher themselves. Such detection requires the closest observation. A catcher, after having given the signal, get sets for the pitch; in doing so he may unintentionally, unconsciously, make a slight move—for example, to the right, in order to be in a better position to catch a right-hander’s curve ball. But more often it is the pitcher who reveals something either to the coaches on the base lines or—what is more telling—to the hitter standing in the batter’s box.
The pitcher will betray himself if he makes two distinct motions for two different pitches—as, for example, a side-arm delivery for the curve and overhand for the fast ball. A pitcher may also betray himself in his windup by raising his arms higher for the fast ball than for the curve. In some cases his eyes are more intent on the plate for one pitch than for another. Usually the curve is more difficult to control. If a pitcher has to make facial distortions, they should be the same for one pitch as for another.
A pitcher covers up the ball with his glove as he fixes it, to escape detection. Otherwise he may reveal that he is holding the ball tigheter for a curve than for a fast ball, or even gripping the stitches differently for one than for the other. Eddie Collins, all-time star second baseman, was probably the greatest spy on the field or at bat in the history of the game. He was a master at ‘getting’ the pitch for himself somewhere in the pitcher’s manipulation of the ball or in his motion. This ability in no small part helped make him the great performer that he was.
Ball players would rather detect these idiosyncracies for themselves, as they stand awaiting the pitch, than get a signal from the coach. The coach, on detecting something, gives a sign to the hitter either silently by some move—for instance, touching his chest—or by word of mouth—‘Come on,’ for a curve. But this is dangerous unless the coach detects the pitches with one hundred per cent accuracy. There must be no doubt. Many times, in baseball, a club knows every pitch thrown and still loses. The hitter may be too anxious if he actually knows what is coming, or a doubt may upset him. And there is always the danger of a pitcher’s suspecting that he is ‘tipping’ himself off. He then deals in a bit of counter-espionage by making more emphatic to the opposition his revealing mannerism to encourage them, only to cross them up at a crucial time.”
There is supplemental material from Sam Kean’s Bastard Brigade book available online. Have a look at the incredible photos here. One is of the the the Major League Baseball all-star team that toured Japan in 1934. Babe Ruth is front and center, with Moe on the front row, second from your left with the catcher’s gear at his feet.
Another touching photo is Moe (center) relaxed at spring training with the Washington Senators in 1933, immersed in his field of dreams.
In addition, there are supplemental notes that will give you a further taste of an intriguing life and story that should be more widely known.