This Day in Jewish History

1923: A Baseball Player-cum-spy Signs His First Contract

Moe Berg may not have had the best batting average, but he did speak seven languages, hold a law degree, and spy on Nazis during the war.

Wikimedia Commons

On June 27, 1923, Moe Berg signed his first contract as a major-league baseball player, earning a $5,000 salary with the Brooklyn Robins. His debut game took place the following day, when the Robins, predecessor to the Dodgers, defeated the Philadelphia Phillies. Berg’s career stretched over the next 16 seasons, but was distinguished mostly for being undistinguished. Nonetheless, he is remembered to this day as quite possibly the most interesting and enigmatic man who ever appeared on the baseball diamond – a linguist and polyglot, a spy, a much-loved but little-known teammate who spent the last two decades of his life boarding with his siblings because he had no job and no income.

Morris “Moe” Berg was born in New York on March 2, 1902, to Bernard Berg and Rose Tashker, both recent Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. Bernard started life in the United States working in a laundry, but by the time the couple’s third child arrived, he had earned a degree as a pharmacist, and soon owned his own shop. In 1910, he was able to move the family to Newark, NJ, into a neighborhood that had few Jews. There Moe grew up playing baseball, first on a church team and then at school; he called himself “Runt Wolfe,” apparently so as not to stand out as Jewish.

Berg spent his first year of college at New York University, where he played both baseball and basketball, before transferring to Princeton – a bastion of upper-class Protestant society. There he earned his magna cum laude degree in languages. The seven languages he studied included not only French and German, but Latin and Sanskrit. He played shortstop on the Princeton baseball team (which he captained in his senior year), and he and the second baseman were known to communicate in Latin when there was a man on second.

The day after Berg played his final game with Princeton, he signed with the Robins, one of several teams in the New York area that were scouting for “Jewish blood” to draw fans. He also had an offer to remain at Princeton and teach Romance languages, and had been admitted to law school at Columbia University. Although he took the position to play ball, when the season was finished the following autumn, he sailed for Paris, and spent the off-season studying at the Sorbonne. By 1926, he was also enrolled at Columbia, squeezing his law studies into his baseball career, which sometimes meant missing spring training or the first games of a season.

Back on the field, in 1927, Berg unintentionally offered his services to his then-team, the Chicago White Sox, as a catcher, the position he played for the rest of his career. In his first game at the position, against the Yankees, he found himself behind the plate against Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The White Sox won, and Berg made a brilliant play, catching a misdirected ball from the outfield and tagging the runner out at home base.

Still, Berg’s career was far from sterling, and until his retirement, in 1939 (the year he also appeared on the radio game-show quiz “Information Please,” dazzling audiences with his esoteric erudition), he found himself shuttling back and forth between big-league clubs (the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Boston Red Sox, in addition to Brooklyn and Chicago). His lifetime batting average was .243, and he hit a mere six home runs. Dave Harris, one of his teammates on the Senators, was said to have responded, when told that Berg could speak seven languages: “Yeah, I know, and he can’t hit in any of them.”

And yet, when major-league baseball organized an all-star team to tour Japan, in 1934, Berg was on it. And one day, while the team was playing a game in Omiya, he took a movie camera to the roof of a Tokyo hospital, from which he shot a film of the city’s skyline and harbor.

Berg later insisted that the film was his own initiative, but eight years later, after the U.S. had been attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, he shared his film with the American intelligence services. Legend says that it helped in the planning of the U.S. air raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

This was the beginning of Moe Berg’s career as an intelligence offer, eventually with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, in which he served from 1943 until the end of the war. Probably the most dangerous and critical of his numerous missions was his tracking of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who was believed to be working on the Nazi drive to acquire an atomic bomb. Berg, posing as a student, attended a lecture by Heisenberg in Zurich, in December 1944, and had orders to kill or kidnap Heisenberg if he hinted that Germany was making progress toward nuclear capability. With his fluent German, Berg listened to the talk, and concluded that a German bomb was not in the immediate offing.

Berg’s spying career also included parachuting into Yugoslavia to evaluate resistance groups there, and similar work in South America and the Caribbean. When after the war, the American government designated him for a Medal of Freedom, he turned it down after he was told he wouldn’t be able to explain to people what he had done to earn the honor. 

Despite efforts on his part, Berg had only limited opportunities to do work with the CIA after the war. He never married. He never took a job as an attorney, though he had finished law school and passed the bar exam. He learned after the war that all the money that he had invested in two startup firms had been squandered, leaving him with a large bill for back taxes. And so, during his final decades, Moe Berg remained unemployed, living first with his brother, Sam, and when Sam asked him to leave, with his sister, Ethel Berg.

Toward the end of his life, Berg reportedly agreed to write a memoir, but quit the project when the co-writer assigned to him gave him to understand that he thought he was working with Moe Howard, one of the Three Stooges.

Moe Berg died on May 29, 1972, at the age of 70. Supposedly, he had begged the CIA to allow him to work for it in Israel during the early years of the state, but was turned down. After he died, his body was cremated, and Ethel, his sister, brought his ashes to Israel and spread them on Mt. Scopus, in Jerusalem.