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The Covert Mr. Berg

Tokyo, Japan, November 29, 1934…

Throwing on a long, black kimono inside his hotel room, Morris Berg readied himself for his mission. Fluent in the Japanese language, the tall, dark, handsome American armed himself with a flower arrangement and headed for St Luke’s Hospital, one of the tallest buildings in Metro Tokyo. The supposed recipient of the bouquet was 22-year-old Leslie Lyons--daughter of American ambassador Joseph Grew--who had given birth to a daughter a few days before.

Moe Berg
1933 Goudey Gum Co card of Moe Berg, Washington Senators (US Public Domain)

Calmly entering the medical facility and informing the front desk of his apparent destination, the charming Berg, instead, climbed the stairs to the outdoor roof and with a previously concealed, hand-held 16mm Bell & Howell movie camera, began to take footage of the surrounding area in a slow, complete 360-degree manner: the nearby railyards, munitions factories, industrial sections, and harbor alongside the Sumida River, opposite Tokyo Bay. Then he left the scene and returned to the hotel, without ever delivering the flowers to whom he would’ve had he been stopped along the way. Eight years later his movie pictures would be of particular concern to the United States Army Force during World War II.

Morris “Moe” Berg came into this world at 12 pounds on March 2, 1902 to Jewish parents in New York City, just a few blocks from the iconic ballpark, the Polo Grounds. Spending most of his formative years in Newark, New Jersey where his father ran a pharmacy, Moe loved baseball, basketball, and scholastics. In short, he was a person with a high IQ who just happened to be an athlete. He graduated from high school at 16, then enrolled at New York and Princeton universities, where he studied seven languages: French, Greek, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish and Sanskrit. He also played shortstop and first base for the school baseball teams. Though not much of a hitter or runner, he had a decent arm and great baseball sense. In June 1923, at 21, he was signed right out of college by the Brooklyn Dodgers for $5,000 a season, partly to help entice New York’s Jewish population--Brooklyn was one-third Jewish--out to the ball park.

Without being sent to the minors, Berg jumped immediately to the Dodgers, where he hit only .187 in 47 games. After the season, he continued to study, this time abroad. His capacity to learn was mind-boggling. In Paris, he enrolled in 22 different crash courses in European history and languages, and took up a habit that he kept for the rest of life: reading several newspapers each and every day. After his European trip, he was now knowledgeable in 15 languages, plus several regional dialects.  He also toured Italy and Switzerland before returning to spring training in 1924. After a two-year demotion trip to the minors, the Chicago White Sox purchased Berg and turned him into a catcher in 1928. For the next ten years, Berg was a mediocre ball player at best, when he played, which wasn’t much most seasons. Still learning, he acquired a law degree through Columbia University in 1930, although he worked for only a few months as a lawyer.

Probably due to his expertise in the Japanese language, he and two major leaguers, Lefty O’Doul and Ted Lyons, jumped at the chance to teach baseball seminars at various Japanese universities in the winter of 1932-1933. Mission accomplished, O’Doul and Lyons returned to the States, while Berg stayed behind and toured Japan. From there, he took additional expeditions to Manchuria, China, Siam, India, Egypt and Nazi Germany before heading back to America and his so-so baseball career with the Washington Senators, where he was now regulated to a third-string catcher role in the bullpen.

So, what was Berg doing taking movie pictures on the roof of St Luke’s Hospital in Tokyo during his second trip to Japan? Actually, he was part of a major league All-Star team on an 18-game tour of the country. Travelling with future Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Gomez, Earl Averill, along with nine other players, and managed by legendary Connie Mack, Berg seemed out of place to the press and the players. He was certainly no All-Star or even a respectable regular. With uneasy political tension between Japan and the United States, did somebody of importance want him there? Then, while in Japan once the baseball tour finished, Berg received word of his unconditional release from the Cleveland Indians, who had purchased his contract in mid-season 1934.  Undaunted, he went on a tour of the Philippines, Korea and Moscow.

Back in the States in 1935, the Boston Red Sox signed Berg. There, he played the last five years of his baseball career, but by averaging less than 30 games a season.  In a total of 15 major league seasons between 1923-1939, mostly as a catcher, he hit .243 lifetime, playing in only 662 games, a weak hitter in an era of high batting averages. No one seemed to know what kept him in the majors that long. If anything, he was solid defensively: at one time he had gone 117 errorless games behind the plate. Also, the press loved him and he was always available for a story.

Berg turned to coaching with the Red Sox for 1940 and 1941. Then, along came America’s involvement in World War with the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Leaving baseball behind, Berg joined the war effort by taking a position with the OIAA (Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs) in January 1942.  A few months later, he turned his 1934 film shot atop St Luke’s Hospital over to the military, who screened it thoroughly--although it was quite grainy--before using other sources for the famous Doolittle Raid on Japan led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle that same year.

In August 1943, Berg began a two-year mission with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. Working with the SI (Secret Intelligence) Branch, he involved himself in dangerous missions on behalf of his government. As an OSS agent, he parachuted into Yugoslavia to monitor different resistance groups fighting the Nazis. Following this, on Berg’s advice, the Allies provided full military support for Marshall Tito’s rebel forces.

Slipping inside German-controlled Norway, Berg met with the Norwegian underground. Together, they located a secret heavy-water plant that the Nazis were using for their effort in building the A-bomb. Within a few weeks, a Royal Air Force bombing raid destroyed the structure. Also, while in the midst of war-torn Italy, Berg managed to make contact--before the Germans, Russians, and British could--with Italian engineer Antonio Ferri, an expert in supersonic wind-tunnel testing, then had arranged passage for him and his family to America to continue his vital work after the war.

On another occasion, December 1944, Berg had orders to hear Nobel Prize winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg, head of Nazi Germany’s atomic bomb project, who was giving a lecture in Zurich, Switzerland on building the bomb. If, according to Berg, the Germans were too close to their goal, he had orders to shoot Heisenberg on the spot with his concealed pistol then swallow the cyanide pill he had in his pocket. After Berg eluded the SS guards at the entrance by speaking German, he listened intently from the front row, posing as an attentive Swiss physics student, although 42 at the time. Alas, Berg could see that the Nazis weren’t any threat. He merely shook Heisenberg’s hand at the finish, then accompanied him to his hotel.

After other OSS missions, Berg returned to the US in late-April 1945 and resigned from the spy agency. In post-war, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom--America’s highest civilian honor during wartime--a few months later. But he refused it for fear of revealing his secretive exploits. In 1946, he was offered two managerial positions with the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox, but declined both. He worked on-and-off for the CIA in the early Fifties until his contract expired in 1954.

Moe Berg
1939 Play Ball card of Moe Berg, Boston Red Sox (US Public Domain)

For the next 18 years, Berg mooched off acquaintances, friends and siblings--Ethel, a sister and Sam, a brother--without ever working at a real job. A loner, he never married. He never learned to drive a car, either, but sure got around a lot. Although he a loner, he still seemed to know a lot a people in North America and Europe whom he could drop in on, including baseball star Joe DiMaggio, whom he stayed with for six weeks. He also knew sportswriter Jimmy Breslin. Together, the two sat in the Yankee Stadium press box for the fifth game of the 1956 World Series in which pitcher Don Larsen threw his noted perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Like a ghost, Berg would appear then disappear, living a nomadic life. Whenever he was asked what he did for a living, he would place a finger on his lips, as if to say that “mom’s the word.”

For a number of years, he wanted to co-write a book on his spying escapades, but before he could, he died on May 29, 1972 from injuries related to a fall. After his death, his Medal of Freedom honor was re-awarded to him, and Ethel accepted it on her brother’s behalf. She also spread his cremated remains over Mount Scopus in Israel.

To honor his war duty, Berg has two of his baseball cards on display at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. His reputation may be best stated in the words US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used when contacting Berg’s OSS superiors in late-1944 regarding Berg’s efforts in monitoring the Nazi race to the A-bomb: “Give my regards to the catcher.”

Casey Stengel used to say that Berg was “The strangest guy in baseball,” and New York Times writer John Kieran called him “The most scholarly athlete I ever knew. “ When referring to his baseball career, Berg had a standard answer: “Perhaps I couldn’t hit like Babe Ruth, but I spoke more languages than he did.” 


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