The Catcher was a Spy

Maurice “Moe” Berg was one of the truly original characters in baseball, which is saying something, since the game is chock full of them.

He  was born in 1902 in New York City, and grew up in Roseville NJ, which is right next to Newark. Berg was a graduate of Princeton and Columbia Law school, reportedly spoke 10 languages(and according to other players, couldn’t hit in any of them),  and was known as Professor Berg while playing.

Berg started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers as a shortstop in 1923,  and had stints while playing for the Chicago White Sox where he came late to the season because he had to finish law school. A series of injuries on the team required him to take up catching in 1928, and he would remain at that position for the rest of his career. He would eventually end up on the Red Sox in 1935.

His was a prolific, as he reportedly read 10 newspapers every day. He was not an excellent player, as he only hit .243 for his career, but he was content to stay on the bench, as baseball allowed him the money and freedom to roam around all the cities he played in. New York City and Boston were undoubtedly his two favorites. He would wander around the towns scouring book stores, where he could buy endless boxes of books on a wide range of topics.

The itinerant catcher even took two barnstorming baseball trips to Japan, the second with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig  and other baseball stars in 1934. The locals gravitated towards him, as he would converse with them in their native tongue. The team of Japanese All-stars  they toured with eventually became the Tokyo Giants, the first professional team in Japan.

Berg loved going places and meeting people, and after his career was over in 1939 he put it to good use, working for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, the precursor to the CIA. This allowed him to carry on as he had, except now it was throughout Europe, where could he travel through the old world cities and experience all the classic architecture and literature. He ended up in the middle of the search for the  German Atomic bomb. He spied on Werner Heisenberg and other German and Italian Physicists to see how close the Axis was to making a bomb, even being involved in a possible assassination attempt on Heisenberg in 1944.

After the war he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, but he would not accept it as he saw it as a consolation prize on the way out the door. The CIA wanted nothing to do with his lone wolf style of espionage and his liberal use of funds for his lavish hotel rooms and meals, and he rankled some upper management with his eccentricities.

He always wore the same suit, almost never paid for a meal (or anything for that matter), and never had a home of his own, but he was an excellent story teller and a charming presence among his many acquaintances. No one seemed to mind to pay his way, take him out to dinner, or let him stay at their home.

Moe was always a very private man, as he never seemed to let anyone know his deepest thoughts, even though he wanted to know everything about all the people he let into his life. It seemed that he was very much afraid of not measuring up to snuff, in much part do to his immigrant father’s disapproval of his playing baseball, instead of using his smarts to make a successful law career.

Whenever there was a question someone asked about something he wasn’t comfortable with, he would put his finger to his lips and shush them. He didn’t have a permanent job after the war, and thereafter lived a nomadic existence out of hotel rooms, at his sister’s and his brother’s homes, and never had a wife or kids.

Berg was a Jew who persisted in two very Christian professions (baseball and Intelligence) and he was shunned at school for his heritage. This may have made him hide away all the more,  as no one knew exactly what Berg was ever up to, and he was just fine with keeping everyone at arm’s length.

He died at the age of 70 in 1972, and eventually had his baseball card encased in glass at the CIA Headquarters. For the man who knew too much, who was too smart for baseball, and lived a truly original life, staying two steps ahead of everybody else was the name of the game

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