Moe Berg, born in a cold-water tenement in New York’s Harlem in 1902 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, grew up to graduate from Princeton University and Columbia Law School. Fluent in seven languages, he was a catcher for several Major League Baseball teams, a protege of the Rockefeller financial/political dynasty, a man about whom a movie-bio was planned and about whom several books were written, all the while being the very definition of a loner.
More interestingly, he was a spy for the United States government, involved in General Jimmy Doolittle’s historic bombing of Tokyo in 1942. He also served the United States OSS (Office of Strategic Services) on assignment to determine whether the leading Nazi scientist developing the atomic bomb should be assassinated. His report stated the Germans were nowhere near getting the bomb so the scientist, Werner Heisenberg, was spared, on Moe’s word.
Moe spent fifteen years in the big leagues as a journeyman back-up catcher for Brooklyn, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland and Boston, batting a career .243.
When Casey Stengel was told Moe could speak seven languages, the “Ol’ Professor” responded, “Yeah, and he can’t hit in any of ’em.”
But it isn’t as a (minor) major leaguer that he is remembered.
It all began on a barnstorming trip he made in 1934 to Japan with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others, the real purpose of which was to scout Japanese players for the game of baseball which was just beginning to reach the Far East.
On an off-afternoon, Moe ascended the highest building in Tokyo, a hospital, dressed in a kimono under which was hidden a camera with which he took secret movies of the city’s skyline and harbor. Those home movies would form the blueprint for the extremely successful bombing raid on the Japanese mainland in WWII, an act which turned the tide for the allies and lifted the spirits of all Americans. The Spencer Tracy film, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” chronicled that historic mission.
When the war was over, word spread of Berg’s former clandestine CIA activities. Moe would direct questions away by raising his left-index finger to his lips in the international sign of secrecy. He avoided notoriety at all costs, spending his days devouring all the newspapers he could find, guarding them as living entities until read, and then discarded as “dead”–his term–immediately upon reading them.
Ever the loner, Moe lived the last twenty-five years of his life with a brother who threw him out and a sister who took him in, venturing out solely to see an occasional New York Mets baseball game. Upon awakening from a coma on his death bed, his first words to his sister were, “How’d the Mets do?”
So interesting, yet so unknown, was Moe Berg that when Hollywood studio writers pitched a film of his life, the movie moguls thought they were talking about Moe of “The Three Stooges.”