The Jewish Baseball Catcher that Caught the Nazis by Surprise
Courtesy of Robert Drynan
When baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig went on tour in baseball-crazy Japan in 1934, some fans wondered why a third-string catcher named Moe Berg was included in the troupe. The answer was simple: Berg was an American spy.
Speaking fifteen languages – including Japanese – Moe Berg had two loves: baseball and spying. In Tokyo, garbed in a kimono, Berg took flowers to the daughter of an American diplomat being treated in St. Luke’s Hospital—the tallest building in the Japanese capital. He never delivered the flowers. The ball-player ascended to the hospital roof and photographed the harbor, military installations, railway yards, etc. Eight years later, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle carefully studied Berg’s photos in planning his spectacular raid, later characterized as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.”
Berg’s father, Bernard Berg, a pharmacist in Newark, New Jersey, taught his son Hebrew and Yiddish. Moe, against his wishes, began playing baseball on the street at age four. His father disapproved and never once watched his son play. In Barringer High School, Moe learned Latin, Greek and French. He graduated magna cum laude from Princeton, having added Spanish, Italian, German and Sanskrit to his linguistic quiver. During further studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Columbia Law School, he picked up Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Hungarian, plus some regional dialects.
During World War II, he parachuted into Yugoslavia to assess the value to the war effort of the two groups of partisans there. He reported back that Marshall Tito’s forces were widely supported by the people and Winston Churchill ordered all-out support for the Yugoslav underground fighter, rather than Mihajlovic’s Serbians. The parachute jump at age 41 undoubtedly was a challenge. But there was more to come in that same year.
Berg penetrated German-held Norway, met with members of the underground and located a secret heavy water plant—part of the Nazis’ effort to build an atomic bomb. His information guided the Royal Air Force in a bombing raid that destroyed the Norwegian heavy water plant.
There still remained the question of how far the Nazis had progressed in the race to build the first atomic bomb. If the Nazis were successful, they would win the war. Berg (under the code name “Remus”) was sent to Switzerland to hear leading German physicist Werner Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate, give a lecture and determine if the Nazis were close to building an A-bomb. Moe managed to slip past the SS guards at the auditorium, posing as a Swiss graduate student. He carried in his pocket a pistol and a cyanide pill.
If Heisenberg intimated that the Nazis were close to building a weapon, Berg was to shoot him—and then swallow the cyanide pill. Moe, sitting in the front row, determined that the Germans were nowhere near their goal, so he complimented the physicist on his speech and walked him back to his hotel. Moe Berg’s report was distributed to Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and key figures in the team developing the Atomic Bomb. Roosevelt responded by sending an encoded message to Churchill: “Give my highest regards to the catcher.”
Most of Germany‘s leading physicists were Jewish and had fled the Nazis, mainly to Britain and the United States. After the war, Moe Berg was awarded the Medal of Merit, America’s highest honor for a civilian in wartime. But Berg refused to accept, as he couldn’t tell people about his exploits. Perhaps one of the most intellectual men to have ever played professional baseball, Berg was often asked why he has “squandered” his mental capacities on an athletic career, to which he always answered: “I’d rather be a ball player than a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.” After his death in 1972, his sister accepted the Medal of Merit, which today hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.