#Shortstops: Moe Berg’s life in baseball
Today, a Spalding catcher's mask belonging to Berg that he used in the 1930s is part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s permanent collection.
“Moe was really something in the bullpen,” said a former teammate. “We’d all sit around and listen to him discuss the Greeks, the Romans, the Japanese, anything. Hell, we didn’t know what he was talking about, but it sure sounded good.”
One of Berg’s former managers explained Berg’s important role this way: “He’s just as necessary to our team as if he were out there catching 154 games. Don’t forget that when he’s not behind the plate he’s in the bullpen schooling those young pitchers for relief work. He steadies the young pitchers and catchers and peps up the vets.”
Berg proved his fine intellect to a national audience when he appeared a number of times on the popular radio program “Information Please.”
“Moe Berg,” said John Kieran, a New York Times sports columnist and fellow panelist on “Information Please,” “is the smartest fellow I’ve ever met.”
Proving himself a talented writer, baseball’s foremost man of letters penned a highly regarded piece for the September 1941 issue of Atlantic Monthly entitled “Pitchers and Catchers.”
After a few seasons as a coach with the Red Sox, newspapers across the country in January 1942 shared the news that Berg would be leaving the team in order to accept a government job as a goodwill ambassador with Nelson Rockefeller, the coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, in Central and South America where his ability to speak Spanish and Portuguese could be utilized best.
It was in this newfound role that Berg made a radio plea to the Japanese people in their own language on Feb. 23, 1942, 11 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, warning them that they had been betrayed by their leaders. Berg had become fluent in the Japanese language during baseball trips to the country in 1932 and 1934.
“You have outraged us and every other nation in the world with the exception of two – two that are tainted with blood – Germany and Italy – they welcome you as friends. But your temporary victories will bring you only misery,” Berg pleaded. “You cannot win this war. We and the 20 other republics of America are unified – we are united. Your leaders have betrayed you.
“After the war, a nation will have to be watched to prove its right to be partners among the civilized. We were patient and took much abuse. We humbly made many concessions – we tried to remain friends. Believe me when I tell you that you cannot win this war. I am speaking to you as a friend of the Japanese people, and tell you to take the reins now. Your warlords are not telling you the truth. The people of the United States and the people of Japan can be friends as they were in the past. It is up to you.”
By August 1943, Berg was recruited to join the Office of Strategic Services – the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency – as an undercover agent. Stationed in Europe, he was tasked with, among other responsibilities, trying to determine Germany’s development of an atomic bomb.
“Moe was absolutely ideal for undercover work. Not by design; just by nature,” said Michael Burke, a fellow OSS agent and later owner of the Yankees. “One, because of his physical attributes. He could go anyplace without fear. He had stamina. Also, he had a gift for languages. In addition, he had an alert, quick mind that could adapt itself into any new or strange subject and make him comfortable quickly.
“He was immensely involved intellectually and active in international affairs through reading and travel. He had the capacity to be at home in Italy or France or London or Bucharest. He was on familiar ground in all those places,” Burke added. “He also possessed a great capacity for being able to live comfortably alone, and could do this for a long period of time. The life of an agent sometimes is a lonely one and some people aren’t suited for that.”
Berg would later be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians during wartime, but he refused it. After he died, his sister, Ethel, claimed the award, which she later donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Mr. Morris Berg, United States Civilian, rendered exceptionally meritorious service of high value to the war effort from April 1944 to January 1946,” reads the Medal of Freedom citation. “In a position of responsibility in the European Theater, he exhibited analytical abilities and a keen planning mind. He inspired both respect and constant high level of endeavor on the part of his subordinates which enabled his section to produce studies and analysis vital to the mounting of American operations.”
After WWII, Berg spent his last few decades seemingly adrift, his life revolving around reading and baseball. Minutes before he died at the age of 70 on May 29, 1972, he reportedly turned to a nurse and spoke his last words: “How did the Mets do today?”
It was a few years later that Dr. Samuel Berg began corresponding with the Baseball Hall of Fame about possibly donating artifacts from his brother Moe’s career.
In a letter dated Oct. 26, 1977, Dr. Berg wrote to Hall of Fame Director Howard Talbot: “Approaching what is considered old age, I must expect the inevitable. Before that time, I plan on disposing of my possessions in the most favorable way. Among these are personal items used by my brother when playing under the name of Moe Berg. He never attained Hall of Fame stature, but he certainly attained eminence that casts credit on the game he played over a period of 17 years. When a motion picture of his activities on and off the diamond is made, which is inevitable, the game of baseball will gain very favorable publicity.”
Dr. Berg, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 92, proved prophetic, as it was announced in April 2016 that actor Paul Rudd is set to star in The Catcher Was a Spy, based on the 1994 Berg biography written by Nicholas Dawidoff. Clooney was attached to the starring role in different studio’s incarnation years earlier.
Talbot would later respond to Dr. Berg on July 13, 1978, thanking him for a number of donations, which included: A uniform from the 1934 Japan baseball tour; a Senators jersey, pants and cap; two Brooklyn caps; one White Sox cap; one catcher’s mask; one cup protector; one ceramic ashtray from the 1934 Japan baseball tour; one Moe Berg signature bat.
“In my prejudiced opinion, Moe has not been appreciated enough by the baseball fraternity,” Dr. Berg wrote in a final missive to Talbot on July 26, 1978. “You should know that Judge Landis remarked, after Moe appeared three times on ‘Information Please’ and a few years after the Black Sox scandal, ‘Moe, you have done more to restore the good name of baseball than any other player,’ or words to that effect.”
Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum